STATE COLLEGE — Penn State lacking linebackers is like a carpenter running out of nails.
How can that happen?
Over the years Penn State had made a name for itself — Linebacker U. — by producing one star linebacker after another, from Jack Ham to Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington to Sean Lee, just to name a few.
Coach James Franklin begins his first preseason camp with the Nittany Lions with one potential star linebacker in Mike Hull holding down the middle, and lots of unproven players on the second level of the defense.
“Each guy has a different skill set that they’re really good at,” linebackers coach Brent Pry said Monday during Penn State’s media day. “Maybe weak in some other areas but really strong in some. We’ve got to develop those weaknesses, and we’ve got to find a way to maximize their strengths and get them on the field in the right place.
“They’re still young to where maybe they’re not complete linebackers. We’re trying to get them there as quickly as we can. We do that and I think we’ll have a pretty good group.”
Penn State is still digging out from under NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Scholarship limitations have left the roster thin and inexperienced heading into this season, with offensive line and linebacker the hardest hit.
Sophomores Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman will get first crack at holding down the linebacker spots around Hull. Both played last season but will need to take big steps forward in 2013. Highly touted freshmen Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda will have the opportunity to get on the field sooner rather than later, but it’s not an ideal situation.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop sees another way around the potential linebacker problems for Penn State.
Like so many teams in college football these days, the Nittany Lions are using more defenses with extra safeties and cornerbacks to combat spread offenses that feature three, four and sometimes five receivers split wide.
“In today’s game, we’ve toyed around and tinkered with playing a third safety, a 4-2-5 package,” Shoop said. “The star position, that field linebacker, that could be a number of different people depending on what the situation calls for.”
Shoop said he likes Penn State’s depth at safety with Adrian Amos, Ryen Keiser, Jesse Della Valle and Bucknell transfer Jordan Dudas.
“The game has changed,” Shoop said. “This isn’t 20 years when it was rock ’em, sock ’em robots running downhill. There’s more skilled athletes on the field than ever before. Defensively, what you’re trying to do is maximize your athletic ability.”
But to stand up to the power of the Big Ten East rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Penn State will need Hull and company to develop.
“I think Penn State has that mentality of being tough and trying to stop the run whenever they try to line it up and play smashmouth football,” Hull said.
The fifth-year senior missed some time last year with a knee injury but still made 78 tackles in 10 games.
“He had a great spring for us,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy that not only has the physical tools in terms of being able to run, being able to change directions. And he’s freakishly strong. But he processes information fast as well. You watch the tape, and the offense is running a counter play, they start out going this way, and everybody on the defense takes three steps in that direction. Hull takes two and is already moving in the other direction.”
Hull moves from the outside to the middle linebacker. The shift comes with added responsibility.
“We’re going to need him to be really verbal,” Franklin said. “He’s more comfortable doing that now than ever before”
To get ready for the new gig, Hull doubled down on film study this offseason.
“The biggest thing I needed to improve on was mentally, being ready to take on the mental challenge of getting everyone all set up on the defense,” he said.
And trying to hold up Penn State’s Linebacker U. tradition.