After an all-time run on linebacker talent in the past few years at a place that prides itself on being called Linebacker U, Penn State suddenly faces an offseason of uncertainty at the position.
“Our depth is a concern,” said defensive coordinator John Butler. “Obviously it’s been a very public question. We have good players there, we just have to keep them healthy. And we have to develop some of the younger guys, get them coming along.”
To be fair, the situation isn’t entirely dire.
Senior returning starter Glenn Carson will anchor the middle. He was the team’s third-leading tackler a year ago, recording 85 stops, six for a loss, and a sack.
Junior outside linebacker Mike Hull figures to be another starter. He was a contributor in every game and showed his great potential in the Indiana game when Michael Mauti suffered yet another knee injury. Hull made a career-high 11 tackles,and recorded a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup.
“Mike’s one of the best football players on our team,” head coach Bill O’Brien said Saturday after the Blue-White Game. “He’s a tough guy; he’s a smart guy. He’s a Pittsburgh guy. We can’t say enough about Mike Hull.
“He can play the run well. He’s, I think, a really good blitzer. He’s really good in coverage. Just a guy who is somewhat of a quiet guy, but he’s a leader by example. Everyone on this football team knows who Mike Hull is and they respect him. I think he’s a really valuable part of our football team.”
Beyond Carson and Hull, however, lies promise but very few proven players.
“We have a couple of good ones coming in and we then have some quality run-ons coming who had options to go other places that we think can provide some depth,” Butler said.
“We’ve got to solve it in recruiting. Just like we had issues last year in the secondary with depth. We solved it in recruiting and position changes and we’re in a better situation now in the secondary than we were last year. We’re going to kind of have to take that approach with the linebackers over the next year to try to get to where we need to be.”
Freshman Nyeem Wartman and sophomore Ben Kline should contend for the Will, or outside, linebacker spot.
Kline, a sophomore who is battling back from offseason shoulder surgery, played in every game last year on defense and special teams. He recorded 18 tackles, half of them solo. He was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage.
Wartman burst onto the scene in the 2012 opener against Ohio, blocking a punt that the Nittany Lions turned into a touchdown.
The promising start was short circuited on the opening kickoff of Penn State’s very next game, at Virginia, when he suffered a knee injury.
“Nyeem, specifically, is a very instinctual football player and football makes sense to him,” Butler said.
Butler said Wartman’s lost season made this spring even more important.
“The No. 1 thing with playing sports is experience, is reps, getting the opportunity to do things that you haven’t done,” Butler said.
“Even though you may see it and watch and sit on the sideline, until you’ve taken on a block, until you’ve dropped into pass coverage, until you’ve blitzed and rushed and executed our calls, you don’t really know,” Butler said. “That’s why these (spring) reps are so valuable. I think Nyeem got close to 400 different reps, improvement reps. We grade every one of them. As we build those reps over time, he’s going to continue to improve.”
Wartman echoed his coach’s evaluation.
“I’m a young linebacker who’s growing and has a lot to learn. I’m far from where I could be and in the summer I’ve got to get better,” he said, and then listed specifics.
“Just knowing the situation, recognizing the situations, the little things, like noticing where the wide receiver is lining up. The little things you have to look in to, the more in depth football things that people outside of football don’t know.”
Some think Wartman might have gained an edge on Kline by being able to practice all spring. Wartman isn’t one of them.
“There’s never safety when you’re fighting for a position so, no, I’m not going to say I feel good about or bad about it,” Wartman said. “I feel like we’re all getting better, plus (Ben) Kline has to come back for the fall so I’m not saying I’ve won the spot or not.
“It’s me and Ben for the Will, but there are some run-ons that are performing very well like (State College grad) Matt Baney, Adam Cole and Gary Wooten at Mike, he’s filling a nice spot behind Carson and is giving us a little depth at Will.”
Whether practicing this spring gave him an edge in the battle for the starting spot or not, Wartman said he was happy to be back on the field.
“It felt great. After I hurt my knee, there was a little depression last season,” he said. “But now it felt good to be out there for the spring game. It felt good to be out there for spring practices. I can’t wait for camp. I can’t wait for the season.
“It’s really scary because you don’t know how you’re going to come back. I looked at it in the sense of it’s a mental thing. I was thinking I’ve just got to prove myself because people are talking about me, but I haven’t done anything to prove myself.”