CHICAGO — Bill O’Brien lived with a few wrestlers when he was a student at Brown University.
Remembering back to those days, O’Brien threw his head back and whistled.
“That’s a unique bunch of dudes,” the Penn State football coach said. “I think it’s a grueling, tough sport that you meet people that are very mentally tough and physically tough. Wrestlers are a different breed.”
Based on his experiences — O’Brien will never mind having a former grappler on his football team. He’s had high school heavyweights on past squads — most recently Gerald Hodges — and he’s still got a vaunted duo at his disposal now as Glenn Carson and Mike Hull opted to trade in their high school headgear for Penn State football helmets years ago.
Those wrestling instincts? They’re still there, especially inside Carson — the man who’s expected to be the new face of the Penn State defense and the latest player expected to carry on the tradition and embody the spirit of Linebacker U.
Those close to him believe Carson was molded for this role by his exploits on wrestling mats.
“Once you’ve wrestled your whole life, it’s a part of your culture and that part of you never goes away,” Carson said. “You’re always a wrestler at heart.”
Even if Carson is now a football player by trade.
Maybe he could have earned a major wrestling scholarship out of Southern Regional High School (N.J.), where he wrestled alongside former Penn State four-time All-American and NCAA champion Frank Molinaro. Carson was a three-time state finalist for Southern Regional, but he was always upfront with wrestling coaches who came to watch him on the mat. He had the size and skill and wanted to pursue football.
While football is his priority, wrestling still enters his thoughts.
Carson is still in contact with Molinaro. He counts Penn State wrestling standout David Taylor among his buddies. Sometimes he entertains the thought — who would win between himself and Hodges? He wonders what would’ve happened if he and Hull had butted heads in the vaunted Powerade Tournament back in high school?
It nearly happened.
“We were the only Jersey team there,” Carson said of the tournament held in Pittsburgh. “He lost to a kid (in the semis) that I actually lost to in double overtime in the finals, so we came really close to wrestling each other.”
Sometimes Carson will slip on his old wrestling shoes when he’s back in New Jersey and get in a wrestling-themed workout. He hasn’t wrestled live in years, though.
“Just out of fear of injury,” Carson said.
But toughness has become a defining characteristic for Carson. He’s played every game so far in his collegiate career.
“Regardless of how he feels, he’s going to be ready to play on every Saturday,” senior John Urschel said. “It’s good to have a guy like that as your middle linebacker, to have that confidence. I think we’re really lucky to have him.”
Sure, Carson’s been dinged up — he respectfully declines to go into specifics — but so far in his career only a different personnel package can force him to the sideline.
It happened mostly last season on third downs.
Then, with Penn State short on defensive backs and unable to field a true nickel defense, Hull — who possesses a wider array of coverage abilities — would replace Carson to give the linebacker unit, completed by Mauti and Hodges, a more mobile look to defend against the pass.
Watching his defense as it had an opportunity to force a punting situation was agonizing for Carson.
“It’s a crucial part of the game and it’s a part that really hurt me to be out of,” Carson said. “So hopefully this year I’m going to be a guy that can stay on the field.”
With his experience, Carson could have appealed to the coaching staff to keep in him in the game, but he didn’t. His teammates insist, he’s not a rah-rah kind of player. He’s quiet most of the time and leads by example.
Senior safety Malcolm Willis is responsible for making sure the defense is in the correct alignment before each snap. Carson calls the scheme in the huddle, however and Willis said linebackers don’t necessarily have to possess intense personalities like Mauti. Tip-top conditioning, football intelligence and an ability to act as a calming influence do just fine.
Carson has all three, Willis said.
His conditioning is widely regarded as the best on the team. Willis and O’Brien attribute that to his wrestling background. Carson, who’s bulked up in his time at Penn State, routinely cut a few pounds every week to get down to his 215-pound weight class as a senior at Southern Regional.
Willis contemplated a wrestling career as a freshman at Lackey High School (Md.)
“I went to one practice, and after one little sparring match, I was exhausted,” Willis said. “So the athleticism that you have to have, the condition that you have to be in in order to wrestle, it’s amazing. Me? I could never do it. I could never be a wrestler.”
Willis settled on basketball as a winter sport, but he sees what he saw inside that gym on a daily basis when he watches Carson play linebacker.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Carson is aggressive, pursuing ball carriers until the play is whistled dead. He’ll hop on a pile, try to punch the football loose. He prides himself on his non-stop motor — the same motor that he relied on in high schools to rack up technical falls with a relentless, attacking style that has become the standard for Penn State wrestlers under Cael Sanderson.
“You have to have a lot of balance,” Willis said. “I feel like that does help, especially at linebacker. You have to play low at all times and it’s all about leverage. I feel like (wrestling) helped Carson.”
While O’Brien counts himself as a big wrestling fan — he’s attended numerous Penn State duals and enjoyed his time with Sanderson during this past spring’s Coaches Caravan tour — he never took up the sport, either. Mainly because, he said, he couldn’t pull off wearing a singlet.
But Carson and Hull could and also have used their experiences to transition into gridiron stars for Penn State.
“I think they’re mentally tough,” O’Brien said. “They get knocked down, they get back up and play the next play. They don’t dwell on what happened on the previous play. That’s a wrestling mentality that carries over well to football.”