UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a conversation about Mike Hull, a friend or family member of his will almost certainly begin a sentence by saying, "He probably didn't tell you, but ... "
He was recognized in high school at the national level for standing out in athletics, service and academics. He is on the Butkus Award preseason watch list. The answer could be any number of achievements. More than likely, though, Hull probably wouldn't tell you.
It's his nature. His parents always taught him to remember the contributions of everyone else.
The latest thing Hull probably won't tell you is that he's one of Penn State's most important players. A Canon-McMillan graduate, he is a fifth-year senior this season. He has rotated from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, expected to anchor an inexperienced defense. He was named a captain by teammates and the coaching staff. He expects to be fresh after dealing with a knee injury for most of last season.
Hull could become one of the Big Ten's top linebackers and even position himself to be talked about among many of the great Penn State linebackers of the past. Again, not that he would tell you.
"He comports himself with a positive humility, is the way I describe it," said Guy Montecalvo, his coach at Canon-McMillan. "He always has."
It seems every athlete story includes the origin tale. The time when two parents thought their son or daughter would grow into an athlete capable of excelling at the highest levels. There were plenty of those for Hull.
As an infant, he kept crawling out of his crib. He started walking at about 10 months. By age 3, he learned how to ride a two-wheel bike and played soccer. He started wrestling in third grade. That first year, he became one of the best wrestlers in the state, losing in the Junior Olympics state tournament to Mike Evans, who is now a top collegiate wrestler at Iowa.
"Anything he did, he had the speed and seemed to be faster than everybody," said his father, Tom Hull.
In his numerous activities, football remained prominent. Tom Hull played at Penn State as a linebacker in the early 1970s, as did Mike's uncle, John Hull. Though Tom intended to make Mike wait to play football until middle school, Mike talked him into letting him play in elementary school. Tom Hull agreed, as long as he could help coach.
"He just begged Tom every night," said Donna Hull, Mike's mother.
At the same time, Mike Hull was developing a love for Penn State. The Hull family often went to games, and when Hull was about 6, former Steelers and Nittany Lions star Franco Harris stopped by their tailgate and signed Hull's shirt.
Penn State had essentially developed a fan for life at that point, and over the next few years Hull would develop as a football player. In eighth grade, Hull played on a team usually reserved for ninth-graders. As a ninth-grader, he made varsity at Canon-McMillan. The next year he rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a running back and made more than 100 tackles as a linebacker.
A back injury marred his final two seasons of high school, but not enough to stop many of the nation's top programs from offering scholarships. Penn State, like it always had been, was Hull's choice. After a redshirt year, he spent the next two as a reserve linebacker and contributor on special teams, racking up memorable plays with his penchant for hard hits and forcing turnovers.
Hull is 6 feet, 232 pounds. He was sometimes overmatched in terms of size, but still managed to turn into one of Penn State's top defensive players through speed, strength and a highly-regarded football IQ.
Montecalvo said Hull could run the 40-yard dash in the low 4.4-second range in high school. When it comes to weight room benchmarks, Hull is routinely near the top for Penn State.
"I just have a certain style of play that I use and I've kind of crafted that over my years here and in high school," Hull said. "So I do a lot of things other people can't do maybe because they're too big or too slow."
Specifically, Hull said he can slip over or to the side of blockers. He tries to avoid offensive linemen by faking them out.
Last year was supposed to be his first opportunity to become one of Penn State's go-to defenders. An ankle injury in the first half of the season opener derailed that possibility. Hull still finished with 78 tackles, second best on the team, but he admitted to never feeling as healthy as he wanted.
This is his final year. This is a Penn State defense in need of consistency. If there's one topic Hull isn't bashful about, it's accepting responsibility. He knows the team depends on him and insists he is ready for it.
"The middle linebacker," Hull said, "has to be the guy."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
Correction, Aug. 17, 2014: Mike Hull was misidentified in an earlier photo.