Penn State linebacker Hull waits in the wings
Linebacker Michael Mauti zeros in on Navy quarterback Trey Miller Saturday. He would later seal the win with a 74-yard return of a fumble in Penn State's 34-7 victory against the Midshipmen at Beaver Stadium.
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Mike Hull, a redshirt sophomore linebacker from Canon-McMillan High School, took a visit to Pitt in late July. He mulled over a move to the Panthers for a few weeks before deciding to remain at Penn State.
Hull might have had an opportunity to start at Pitt this season, but his strong ties to Penn State kept him in University Park.
"It was a tough decision," Hull said Wednesday morning. "I was pretty much 50-50 the whole time. I knew the situation I'd have at Penn State. I'm not sure what Pitt had to offer and the players they had. I only had a couple of weeks to decide, so I decided to stay. Ultimately, I'm a Penn State guy."
Hull's decision to stay was not surprising considering his family history. His father, Tom, played linebacker for Penn State from 1971-73 and went to play in the NFL with San Francisco and Green Bay. An uncle, John, was a Penn State letterman in 1970 and '71.
Hull grew up with a strong understanding of the Penn State linebacker tradition. He knew he was not going to waltz into the locker room and assume a starting role on the team even though, according to the scouting services, he was ranked among the top 10 linebackers in the country as a high school senior.
"When you come to Penn State you know you're going to have to wait your turn," Hull said. "When I got here, I had NFL-caliber linebackers in front of me. I knew I'd get my shot. It's just a matter of time."
Hull is currently the backup to starting outside linebacker Gerald Hodges, who contemplated an early entry into the NFL last winter before deciding to return for his senior season.
Hull is making his mark on special teams and as a reserve on defense. He got the opportunity to play in the fourth quarter of the 34-7 victory against Navy and flashed the skills that made him one of the most sought-after players in the country when he was a talented three-sport athlete for the Big Macs.
Hull scooped up a fumble, did not break stride and outsprinted Midshipmen pursuers to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.
Penn State senior linebacker Michael Mauti understands what it is like to be a talented player and to have to wait. When Mauti arrived at Penn State, Sean Lee was a junior and was one of many standout linebackers on the roster.
What Mauti learned from Lee he is passing on to Hull and other young Lions.
"I was real close with Sean when he was here," Mauti said. "I definitely share things with the other guys. We're always sharing information on how to play different players. To see the young guys make plays is nice because they're the guys who are going to be making plays for us in the future."
Mauti said Hull has become much better since adding 15 pounds to his frame since the end of last season. Hull, perhaps more than anyone else on the team, has benefited from the strength and conditioning program that first-year coach Bill O'Brien has installed.
"He came in undersized for a linebacker," Mauti said. "He wasn't as big as a lot of us. In the past eight months, he's one of the strongest guys, pound for pound, on the team. He's gotten in the weight room. And you saw how fast he is on Saturday. He's as tough as nails. The more experience he gets the better he's going to be on the field."
Hull was so undersized when he arrived on campus that previous defensive coordinator Tom Bradley tried him at safety for a short while. Bradley moved Hull back to linebacker because he had a comfort level there.
Hull, who is 6 feet and now weighs 225 pounds, is one the prized pupils of new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Hull recorded the highest max bench press on the team this summer at 405 pounds. When it came to his combined numbers in the bench press, squat, clean, NFL shuttle and 40-yard dash, only Mauti earned a higher score.
"It definitely makes a difference, getting off blocks, explosiveness and things like that," Hull said of the added weight and muscle.
It appears the coaching staff is looking for more ways to get Hull on the field. In addition to backing up Hodges at outside linebacker, Hull has learned the middle linebacker position behind starter Glenn Carson and the other outside position that Mauti occupies.
That versatility could help him earn more snaps in the coming weeks, including Saturday against Temple.
"We have a very strong linebacking corps, and we do try to get him in there to spell some of those guys that are ahead of him right now," O'Brien said. "He's gone in there and played well. He's a tough guy. He's a Penn State linebacker and we'll continue to play him."
As for a starting position, that likely will have to wait until next season. Hull has accepted that and said he will not look into transferring again during this offseason.
"I'm not looking back," he said. "There's no point in looking back. I'll get my chance to start next year, hopefully, and I want to make the most of it."
Correction/Clarification: (Published September 21, 2012) A headline in some editions Thursday misidentified Penn State linebacker Mike Hull. Additionally, a photo accompanying the story showing a Penn State player rushing Navy quarterback Trey Miller misidentified linebacker Michael Mauti.
First Published September 20, 2012 12:00 am