Glenn Carson and Mike Hull aren’t science majors but that doesn’t mean the Penn State linebacking duo doesn’t appreciate the importance of chemistry.
Now that they are embracing leadership roles on and off the field following the departures of former stalwarts Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Carson and Hull are looking to welcome a new teammate into the fold in the middle of the Nittany Lion defense.
Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman is expected to join them to form Penn State’s starting trio when the season begins in the fall. For now, the threesome is getting used to playing together and with only a handful of spring practices under their belts, trust isn’t an issue.
“I spend a heck of a lot more time with them than I do my family, obviously so that’s really my new family,” Carson said. “We’ve spent so much time together, it’s really like a brotherhood. I know whoever is going to be next to me, it’s going to be easy transition. I’ve seen a lot of time with Mike Hull (this spring). He’s a guy that I really trust and we’ve all seen that he can play and make big plays at crucial times for us.”
Carson and Hull played limited snaps together last season before Mauti went down late in the year with a knee injury, however.
While he played in all 12 games, Hull was counted on for his speed and coverage abilities on third down last season and contributed heavily on special teams too. On many third downs, he would replace Carson as the third linebacker on the field while Adrian Amos would move from corner to safety. Da’Quan Davis would enter at Amos’s corner spot.
Meanwhile, Carson started all 11 games alongside Hodges and Mauti until Hull stepped in for an injured Mauti in the season finale.
“The more you play with each other, the better you’re going to get as a unit,” Hull said. “Last year, as the year went on I think we really clicked, fitting into our different roles. For this year, me and Glenn haven’t really played much together, but we know the defense, we’ve been in the system for a year and everything’s going real smooth right now.”
And they know what to expect from one another on the field. Carson and Hull have been pretty close since both enrolled in time for the 2010 season. Then, Hull redshirted while Carson played 152 snaps as a true freshman.
Both vaunted wrestlers, Hull for Canon-McMillan and Carson for Southern Regional (NJ), the two gathered on campus to watch last weekend’s NCAA Wrestling Championships where Penn State won its third straight team title.
While Wartman didn’t join them, he’ll get a chance to spend more time with Carson and Hull on the field. Wartman’s already endeared himself to his older teammates after putting together a strong winter workout period.
“I think a lot of the linebackers showed that they have the toughness and they have the drive that can get them through the winter workouts let alone the season. If we keep that work ethic going I think great things are going to happen,” Carson said. “Nyeem, he’s not a concern. He’s a great player, he’s a great athlete and I really trust him next to me.”
Barring the unexpected, the personnel the Nittany Lions have now will most likely comprise the final roster come the end of the season.
No Penn State players are expected to transfer out of the program despite the NCAA’s transfer waiver which allows current Nittany Lions to transfer free of being penalized a season of eligibility. The waiver, included with the sanctions leveled against the program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, expires when the team’s training camp begins this summer.
But no Penn State player who was available for comment on Wednesday believed any transfers were forthcoming.
Sophomore tight end Deion Barnes simply shook his head no. Malcolm Willis politely followed suit.
“I think anybody who wanted to go or had thoughts about going is gone from the team now,” senior offensive tackle Adam Gress said. “And I think the rest of us, after seeing how good we were last season, it wasn’t the best record, I think it could’ve been better but I think we shocked a lot of people doing as well as we did.”
Overall, Penn State lost 13 scholarship players before camp began last season. Among the big names, offensive starters Justin Brown and Silas Redd left for Oklahoma and USC, respectively while kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas.
While Penn State finished 8-4, the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. The Sooners finished 10-3 but were hammered in the Cotton Bowl 41-13 by Texas A&M while USC ended up 7-6 while the Longhorns went 8-4 and added a ninth win by beating Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.
Those mixed results helped reinforce the idea for Penn State players that they still had good opportunities in Happy Valley.
“I think guys that have stayed are pretty content with where we are and guys want to stay,” Gress said. “They like our staff and fellow players, they love State College and want to stick around.”
As one of the longest tenured defensive backs on the squad, Willis understands the importance of defensive scores.
Now that John Butler has taken the reigns of the Penn State defense, it is his mantra time and time again — get takeaways.
Willis would just have to reach back in time to find the last defensive touchdown turned in by a defensive back, however. Penn State hasn’t benefited from a member of its secondary finding the end zone since the 2007 Outback Bowl win over Tennessee. Then, Tony Davis scooped up a fumble and returned it 88 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score.
Willis is hoping to change that as soon as possible. He had some chances last season, but missed out. Most of his whiffs were based on hesitation and not being fully comfortable with the multiple looks employed by former coordinator Ted Roof.
“When I see a look or a route, I’ve watched enough film to know what’s coming,” Willis said. “I can just react to it and not hesitate. You hesitating is the difference between breaking up a pass and intercepting a pass.”
He’s been relaying Butler’s message throughout the first few spring practices while his teammate Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has done the same. All-in-all, Penn State will be breaking in two true freshman corners in Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith. They’ve been relying on Willis and Obeng-Agyapong to help lead them along. They’ve also leaned on sophomore safety Jordan Lucas who has made strides, Willis said.
Obeng-Agyapong is looking for more ways to contribute, as he’s being held out of spring practice as he recovers from a shoulder injury. For now, getting mental repetitions by watching film and following along in practice while serving as a mentor for his younger teammates will have to do.
“We understand the fact that we have to make more plays. We have to get into the end zone,” Willis said. “Everybody’s vying for that. We’re betting in the locker room, trying to see who’s going to get that first touchdown, get the first interception. It’s all competition.”
Joining Obeng-Agyapong among players being held out of contact were Garry Gilliam and Adam Breneman.
Gilliam, who was not available for comment, is dealing with a leg injury and was limited Wednesday. He recently switched to offensive tackle after playing tight end last season.
Also wearing a red jersey at Wednesday’s practice was Breneman, a highly-touted true freshman tight end prospect.
Breneman is coming off a torn ACL he suffered last summer. Although Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said Breneman would be a full participant this spring, he wore a heavy wrap around his right arm and was held out of contact Wednesday during the portion of the practice open to the media. True freshmen are not allowed to speak to the media. Meanwhile, tight end Kyle Carter has also not been cleared to return to full practice as he recovers from wrist surgery.