UNIVERSITY PARK — The trout in Arkansas didn’t have a chance.
Not with Mike Hull — Penn State’s de facto leader on defense — standing in the middle of the stream.
Hull, who recently took a spring break trip to the Deep South with roommate Brad Bars, said the two of them combined to catch nearly 100 rainbow and brown trout over the multiday fishing expedition, is looking to have comparable success in the middle of the Nittany Lions’ linebacker corps.
“I don’t think it will be too much different,” Hull said. “Just the locality and getting everyone set and lined up and making all the checks. I think that will be the main thing. As long as I can take care of getting everyone set up I think I’ll be good to go.”
Glenn Carson handled middle linebacker duties last season and Michael Mauti was the Nittany Lions’ defensive voice two years ago. Through their final seasons, Hull slotted in beside each of them on the outside. He got a taste of playing in the middle toward the end of 2012 after Mauti went down with a knee injury.
In terms of assignments, the switch hasn’t been tough for Hull.
Although a nagging right knee injury dogged him all of last season, Hull has been one of Penn State’s most athletic linebackers since he’s been in Happy Valley. His coverage skills were counted on in crucial third down situations in 2012. His speed to the outside was evident when his number was called on blitzes and when chasing down running backs from the backside.
But unlike Mauti, who was known for his fiery personality and the ease with which he spoke his mind, Hull has always preferred to lead by example. Like Carson, also a cerebral player who let his actions speak for themselves, the switch to the inside has encouraged Hull to find his voice this spring.
“That’s definitely forcing him to be a little more vocal on the defense,” junior cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “Which is a great thing because he’s talking every play. Every single play you hear Mike Hull’s voice letting us know what the call is, putting the defensive line in the right shifts and letting us know our looks.”
Hull got an early start during winter workouts. A new coaching staff provided extra motivation for Hull. He wanted to establish himself as a grizzled veteran willing to push his teammates and make a good first impression on James Franklin and his staff.
The former Canon-McMillan star who helped his high school wrestling team clinch the 2010 WPIAL Class AAA championship wrestling with a serious shoulder injury, earned immediate respect from his new position coach Brent Pry.
Shortly after he was named to Franklin’s staff, Pry described Hull as a “blue-collar, square-jawed player” full of grit and ripe with leadership qualities after observing him completing explosive reps and barking at his teammates in the weight room.
“Last year I was a lead-by-example guy,” Hull said. “That’s kind of how I’ve been my whole career here, just work hard. But now I realize that I have to step up and talk and set everybody where they need to be and do what I’ve got to do to get the best out of everybody.”
Hull said he started to realize that role would likely fall to him toward the end of last season. But it was more of a forced realization.
Carson’s college career was approaching its end and it was hard for Hull to lead by example when he couldn’t play up to his own lofty standards. The knee sprain he suffered in the season opener against Syracuse caused him to miss two games and most of a third.
Playing with a bulky brace, often strapped over athletic tape and a heavy bandage, Hull admitted on Thursday that the injury slowed him and robbed him of his explosiveness for much of the season. Carson noted the effect the injury had on his friend after Hull was unable to finish the Central Florida game.
But Carson insisted the 2013 defense got a boost when Hull returned. Despite missing time, Hull finished second on the team with 61 tackles, 5 1/2 behind Carson who led the team.
Now, Hull is hoping to provide a bigger boost with a clean bill of health — he’s practiced without the knee brace — and ample opportunities and added confidence to speak up.
Unlike Mauti and Carson who were flanked by linebackers with more experience, Hull will be tasked with leading a greener group.
Penn State’s other most experienced returning linebackers — sophomores Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell — combined for just nine starts and were in and out of the lineup last season. Junior Ben Kline is being held out of contact drills this spring as he is still recovering from a torn chest muscle.
“Mike Mauti, Glenn last year, really I’m trying to get to the point where Mauti was at, letting them know and just being intense out there every single time,” Hull said. “I think I’ve learned a lot since spring ball started on how to be an effective, vocal leader out there. And I think it’s really starting to show and take off.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.