UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This season was supposed to follow a pre-ordained arc for Penn State linebacker Mike Hull. A reserve who did everything in 2012 from blocking punts on special teams to starting for an injured Michael Mauti, he was supposed to come into his own.
When a linebacker comes into his own at Penn State, greatness generally follows. Players such as Gerald Hodges and Chris Colasanti were reserves for two years before turning into successful starters.
Hull, a Canon-McMillan High School graduate, was next. Then an injury happened in the Nittany Lions' first game. After a team-high 10 tackles against Indiana, he is only now beginning to return to where he expected to be.
"Now that I'm back on the field, I'm trying to make all the plays I can," Hull said.
The injury was one of those unfortunate occurrences bound to happen in football. In the first half of the Syracuse game, a Syracuse player performed a cut block on Hull, a block that coach Bill O'Brien described as being clean. The play injured Hull's knee.
He sat out the Eastern Michigan game, then played sparingly against Central Florida. Looking back on that game Hull knows he wasn't ready to go.
"That game I just really thought I needed to help my team out and like I said it tore me up not playing with my teammates," he said.
Hull also said that was the first time he had been injured seriously. He had to figure out ways to contribute to the team and did so by offering guidance to the younger linebackers. As someone who has played every spot at linebacker and on special teams, his advice proved valuable. Linebacker Glenn Carson compared him to an extra coach during that stretch.
"He played a role as much as he could," Carson said.
Nobody on the defense would say they played particularly well against Indiana. In Hull's 10-tackle game, he saw plenty of ways to improve. The linebackers in general need to make strides for the benefit of the defense.
Long before the season started, O'Brien cautioned that the linebacker core was low on depth. Hull's injury made it worse, and reserve Ben Kline also has barely played because of injury. Freshman Nyeem Wartman has been playing but has been dealing with shoulder problems. Together, the linebackers (Carson, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Hull, Wartman, Kline, Gary Wooten and Brandon Bell) have contributed 101 tackles in five games, about 20 tackles per game. A year ago, Penn State's linebackers contributed just over 30 tackles per game.
"It's tough if you don't play alongside each other," Hull said. "I think we're getting everyone back to healthy now and getting the rhythm going."
O'Brien said Hull would be playing injured the rest of the season, but Hull said his health is around 95 percent. The pain for him, he said, was the kind everyone faces halfway through the year.
The difference between him and most everyone else is he barely has played the first part of the season. Hull realizes that if he is to make the step forward so many linebackers have in the past, he will need to do it quickly.
Game: Penn State (3-2, 0-1 Biig Ten) vs. Michigan (5-0, 1-0).
When: 5 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05 First Published October 9, 2013 8:58 PM