Sophomore Mike Hull might be the most versatile Penn State football player.
His speed and strength allows him to play any defensive position. His background allows him to compete with anybody on the team in almost any sport.
The only problem entering this season: Hull didn't have a starting job.
He's playing linebacker, the most front-loaded position on the team, with veterans Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson occupying the three starting spots.
To play meaningful defensive snaps this season, Hull learned all three linebacker positions.
The versatility has turned Hull into one of Penn State's fastest risers. His 19 tackles through three games rank ninth on the team Mauti, Hodges and Carson lead the Nittany Lions and he displayed his athletic ability by returning a fumble 74 yards for a touchdown last Saturday against Navy.
We always knew Mike Hull was an athlete, strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. Hes hit hard since the day he stepped on campus. Hes hard-hitting and athletic. Nothing he does surprises me.
A few weeks ago, it wasn't certain whether Hull would be making big plays at Beaver Stadium. The NCAA sanctions levied against Penn State forced many underclassmen, including Hull, to explore their options.
The NCAA offered a transfer waiver, meaning players could leave Penn State and compete immediately at another school. Hull, a western Pennsylvania native who attended District 7 Canon- McMillan High School, received strong interest from Pitt.
Hull visited Pitts campus. He met with the Panthers' new coaching staff. At one point, he was torn. Mauti, Hodges and Carson weren't going anywhere, leaving Hull in a tenuous spot.
It was a tough decision, he said. I was probably 50-50 the whole time. It took me a couple of weeks to decide.
Hull decided shortly before training camp he would remain at Penn State, where he has deep ties. His father, Tom, his uncle, John, and high school coach, Guy Montecalvo, played for the Nittany Lions.
I knew he would ultimately stay at Penn State, Montecalvo said. Hes ingrained at Penn State. As a young boy, he would attend games with his family. I knew he would be entertaining other offers because colleges at first were using me as an avenue. Everybody called about him. When push came to shove, it was ultimately his decision. Even his dad stayed hands-off.
Hull said theres no looking back with his decision.
Theres no point of leaving now, he said. Im going to be getting my shot next year as a starter hopefully. I just have to make the best of it here.
With Hull sticking around, earning weight-room awards might be difficult for his teammates. Only Mauti posted a higher combined summer strength and conditioning testing score. Hulls 405-pound bench press led the team.
Hull estimated he lost between 10 and 15 pounds because of a virus this past spring. He regained the weight and hes now playing at a solid 225 pounds. The strength allows the 6-foot Hull to shed larger blockers.
He's one of the strongest, if not the strongest, guys on the team, pound-for-pound, Mauti said He has real quick feet and you can see how he can run. He's tough as nails. He's going to be getting better and better.
Hulls speed complements his strength, with his 40-yard dash dipping below 4.5 seconds in high school, according to Montecalvo. Hull also played running back in high school, rushing for 1,300 yards against Class AAAA competition as a sophomore while also starting at linebacker.
A back injury limited Hulls offensive duties as a junior and senior. On defense, Montecalvo used Hull at all three linebackers along with free safety. Hull eclipsed 100 tackles despite a large workload.
Hull wrestled for the Big Macs, reaching the PIAA Class AAA 215-pound semifinals as a sophomore. Injuries derailed his wrestling career. He also played center field and batted leadoff for a Canon- McMillan team that won the 2009 PIAA Class AAAA baseball title.
Montecalvo said Hull reminds him of former Penn State linebacker Aaron Gatten, a multi-sport standount Montecalvo coached at Washington High School. Gatten won multiple individual high school state titles in wrestling and track.
They are the same kind of athlete, Montecalvo said. Both have tremendous strength and worked very hard.
For Montecalvo, who sent more than 40 players to Division I schools, watching Hull contribute to a Penn State victory proved uplifting.
Nobody deserves it more, he said. I couldnt be happier for him. There have been tears in my eyes.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy