UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Michael Mauti's promising Penn State football career appeared to be on track last summer as he held the upper hand in competition for the starting middle linebacker job.
But Mauti suffered a season-ending injury in early August, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a non-contact play in a scrimmage.
Ten months of intense rehabilitation seemed more like 10 years.
"To say the last year has been frustrating would be an understatement," Mauti said. "I can't express in words how much I am looking forward to getting back on the field in August.
"I am a football player. The game got taken away from me for a year, but I am excited to be back. I'm not sure I'd want to be the first guy I hit in practice. It might hurt pretty bad."
Mauti, 6 feet 2 and 231 pounds, suited up in full pads this spring, but he was limited to non-contact drills to avoid injury. He said he has "no restrictions right now, except I am going to have to wear a brace on my knee this season."
Mauti, a sophomore, was a medical redshirt last season.
In 2008, he was one of three true freshmen to play in every game. He had 26 tackles and forced a fumble as a reserve linebacker and special teams player.
Mauti isn't happy with those numbers.
"As far as my career is concerned, I have really just scratched the surface in terms of my ability," he said. "I still have three more years left. I have so much work ahead of me.
"I don't really pay attention when people keep talking about my potential. To me, that word just means I haven't done anything yet."
Barring any setbacks, Mauti's return this fall should be a big boost for the Nittany Lions' defense, which had all three of its starting linebackers picked in the NFL draft --- Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull, Mauti's competition last year.
"Mike's somebody we have high hopes for," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "He has chance to be very good linebacker for us. He did do some things for us this spring on a limited basis and our doctors and trainers felt he was ahead of schedule.
"But you do worry when they come back and start to run more and get more involved. You worry about how the knee will be affected. How will it heal? Will it get sore? Will it survive the first contact?
"Until we see where Michael's knee is, we won't know for sure what our linebacker lineup will look like. But we don't foresee any problems with him."
Senior Chris Colasanti was No. 1 on the depth chart at middle linebacker this spring. Fifth-year senior Bani Gbadyu and redshirt junior Nathan Stupar were the first-team outside linebackers.
One of those three likely will lose their starting job to Mauti.
"I'm excited for him to come back and I know the competition's going to be even steeper when he comes back," Stupar said.
Mauti said it doesn't matter what position he plays.
"I practiced at strong side linebacker this spring, but I was really all over the place," he said. "I don't care if it's inside our outside. I just want to be on field and contribute."
Mauti grew up in Louisiana, where he was a U.S. All-American as a senior at Mandeville High School, but has a strong Penn State background.
His father, Rich, lettered for coach Joe Paterno in 1975 and '76 and played seven seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver/punt returner for the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins.
His older brother, Patrick, was a backup wide receiver and special teams player for the Lions who wrapped up his career in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day this year.
Bradley played two seasons with Mauti's dad at Penn State and sees similarities.
"The thing I like about Michael is his aggressiveness," Bradley said. "He knows where the football is. He's tough. He has all attributes you are looking for in an outstanding linebacker.
"He is like his dad in so many ways. They even have some of the same mannerisms."
Ron Musselman: firstname.lastname@example.org .