UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Josh Hull grew up 25 miles from Penn State's campus. He played football at Penns Valley, a Class AA high school in Centre County.
Despite being a three-year starter and a first-team all-conference performer as a senior for the Rams, Hull didn't attract Division I scholarship offers. A handful of Division II and III schools expressed interest, but Hull turned them down for a chance to be a walk-on with the Nittany Lions.
His parents both work for the university, so that made Hull's decision easier.
"I wanted to play football for Penn State for as long as I can remember," Hull said. "There were no guarantees when I came here, but I would have been mad at myself if I didn't at least give it a shot."
Hull started out at the bottom, working with the scout team during his redshirt season in 2005. He played 166 snaps on defense and special teams in 2006 and 292 last year, when he appeared in all 13 games, making 18 tackles.
Earlier this month, coach Joe Paterno rewarded Hull with a scholarship.
Hull's next big test will come Aug. 30, when the redshirt junior is expected to make his first start at middle linebacker in the Lions' non-conference opener against Coastal Carolina at Beaver Stadium.
"It's definitely a big change from Penns Valley, where I played in front of 1,500 or 2,000 people a game," Hull said. "Here, there's 110,000 people every game. When I was a freshman, I had to take a step back every once in a while. I was in awe a little bit.
"But I've gotten used to it. I know I belong here. I just have go out on the field now and prove to people I belong here."
Hull doesn't like the fact that he inherited his starting job due to an injury. Sean Lee, a projected first-team All-American, was supposed to be the man in the middle for Penn State, but he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in spring drills.
"It was devastating to lose a player like Sean, but we have to move on and get things done on the field without Sean being there beside us," he said.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is confident that Hull will be a valuable contributor.
He has been flanked by outside linebackers Tyrell Sales and Bani Gbadyu throughout preseason practice. The second team has been a mixture of Chris Colasanti, Michael Mauti, Mike Yancich and Navorro Bowman. Jerome Hayes, a rush end on the rebound from a torn ACL, also figures to see playing time at linebacker.
"We're going to be a little bit different team without Sean in the middle," Bradley said. "Sean was a heck of a football player. But we've got a good group of young linebackers to work with, and Josh is one of them.
"He's been around. He understands what we're trying to get done. He's played for us in games. He understands his role and what it takes to be a good player in there.
"He understands our system. He just has to get used to playing full-time."
Injuries to Bowman and Dontey Brown midway through last season led to more playing time for the 6-foot-3, 239-pound Hull. He served as the top backup to Dan Connor at middle linebacker and backed up Lee and Sales on the outside.
Hull's determination and versatility have not gone unnoticed.
"Josh came here as a walk-on, and he earned people's respect his first day," Sales said. "Now he has a scholarship and he's going to be a starter.
"When you see stuff like that, you have to be impressed. He's certainly not a pushover. He has a big heart, and he brings it with him to work every day in practice."
NOTES -- Penn State has lost its third defensive tackle in the past three weeks. Devon Still, a redshirt freshman competing for playing time as a backup behind starters Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma, sustained a broken leg in a scrimmage Saturday and will have surgery this week. He could miss at least two months. Still, 6 feet 5 and 302 pounds, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee a week into preseason practice a year ago. In late July, coach Joe Paterno kicked two other defensive tackles, Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, off the team due to off-the-field issues.
Ron Musselman can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 19, 2008 4:00 AM