UNIVERSITY PARK — The summer months of 2012 provided a unique proving ground for would-be leaders in the Penn State football program.
No current Nittany Lion will soon forget the impassioned messages delivered or the uproarious battle cries bellowed by Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich when multiple morale-trying scenarios emerged. Now that the wild-haired, steely-eyed duo of Mauti and Zordich have left, those ultimate leader spots are up for grabs, and a new batch of players should will need to show their captain-like qualities.
“I think it’s more that every year’s different,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said before his team began spring practice. “And so there’s definitely a group of guys from last year’s team that played a lot of football for us — John Urschel, Glenn Carson, Adrian Amos — that certainly have leadership ability, and were part of that leadership team last year. So now it’s time for some of those younger guys to have a good spring practice and work hard and help us in that role, too. So we’ll see how that develops.”
It developed rapidly last offseason. When the NCAA hit Penn State with historic sanctions, Mauti and Zordich called a players’ meeting that many credited as being the reason most Nittany Lion players stuck with the program.
With the new season, players can focus on earning their teammates’ respect the old fashioned way. The three players mentioned by O’Brien have been doing so for quite a while now.
Urschel, one of the brightest players on the team — he’s posted 4.0 GPAs for six consecutive semesters — started 12 games last season while earning playing time in 11 as a junior in 2011. Carson has long been a mainstay in Penn State’s linebacking corps. The senior has started 23 games and has 25 total appearances on his resume over the past two seasons. Amos, a junior, was counted on to play on huge chunks of snaps last season for an evolving defense.
“I’ve kind of always had a leadership role, especially on the field I think,” Carson said. “Being a middle linebacker, you’ve got to make a lot of the play calls and you’ve got to make a lot of the checks and things like that. So, especially on the field, I’ve always kind of thought I’ve had that leadership role.”
Without Hodges or Mauti around to bark this season, Carson said he’s taken it upon himself to urge some of his younger teammates along at times.
“Maybe a little bit more of me making sure that guys are staying focused,” Carson said. “Sometimes practices and workouts can be a grind. Especially on Week 7 or something like that so you make sure that guys are still grinding through it and getting everything out of it they can out of coach (Craig Fitzgerald’s) workouts.”
Urschel, an offensive guard, said thoughts of a captaincy haven’t entered his mind, although he’s continued to act as a model student-athlete to his teammates. The senior is currently teaching a class on campus.
One of his rules is he doesn’t talk football — only math. That approach changes once he gets to the Lasch Building.
“I want to make sure I do everything I can to ensure that our team has a successful year,” Urschel said. “So I’m doing as much as I can personally to take my game to the next level while at the same time I’m trying to help some of my teammates progress, especially some of the younger guys on the offensive line.”
While Amos is in his junior season, he proved himself a versatile player last year playing both corner and safety and has appeared in 24 of a possible 25 games over the last two seasons.
“Guys step up every year,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “That’s the nature of football.”
And Willis, whose 78 tackles over the last two seasons are more than the rest of the returning defensive backs combined, will undoubtedly be counted on to step up as well.
Along with Stephon Morris, Willis was one of the more experienced secondary players coming into camp last season. It was tough for them to take on an advisor-type role as everyone was getting started with new defensive schemes at the same time, however. Now he enters looking to finish his career as a leader the rest of his teammates in the secondary can look to for tips.
And he feels much more capable of doing so with another year under his belt.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Willis said. “Personally, last year I missed some opportunities that I hesitated on making plays when I knew the play was coming. But this year, I understand the defense. I understand the schemes more. And now I’ve been in the film room and I understand what I did wrong and I can learn from it.”
Senior linebacker Mike Hull also has been mentioned by O’Brien as a leader-by-example type. While he only started one game, he still earned crucial playing time with his speed as a coverage linebacker on third downs and copious snaps on special teams.
He said he’s eager to take on a leadership role and will do so in any way, shape or form — even if that means continued special teams play for a senior expected to be one of the team’s primary linebackers on every down.
“I love playing special teams. I’ve been playing them since my freshman year here,” Hull said. “That’s what gets you on the field at the next level. I think that I’ll continue to play special teams and I want to play special teams. It’s just another opportunity to make plays.”