Penn State will get a boost on defense as the Nittany Lions prepare for Central Florida this week.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien confirmed linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline are back practicing after both players missed last week’s game against Eastern Michigan with unspecified injuries. Although the hard-tackling duo is back at practice, time will tell if either will be able to play against the Knights at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night.
O’Brien said both Hull, a junior, and Kline, a sophomore, are likely to play but hinted they would be monitored as the week progresses. Hull sustained an injury early in the first quarter against Syracuse. Penn State’s stalwart tackler left the game and returned with his right leg taped and braced. He played just three snaps after that before being shut down for the rest of the game.
Kline had offseason shoulder surgery and was day-to-day during the team’s training camp. He undertook a heavy workload against the Orange when Hull went down but did not suit up against the Eagles.
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Hull is officially listed as “possible” on the team’s injury report while Kline does not appear.
Penn State’s lack of linebacker depth — a concern amongst the coaching staff early on — has been buoyed by the play of Stephen Obeng-Agyapong who converted from safety. He’ll continue to play in that role, O’Brien said.
“If Hull can go it will be Hull, (Glenn) Carson and (Nyeem) Wartman more than likely,” O’Brien said. “If Hull has some issues here throughout the week then we’ll go with whoever we have there whether it’s Obeng or somebody else but Obeng will play and will have the same role in the game just like he’s had the past two weeks.”
Unlike the past two weeks, Penn State is preparing to face an opponent that will field a myriad of offensive weapons with a talented triggerman at the helm.
Leading the UCF offense is quarterback Blake Bortles. The UCF junior is 12-4 as a starter and is a candidate for the Davey O’Brien award, given to the country’s top quarterback.
“He’s very, very good,” O’Brien said of Bortles. “He’s a pro prospect.”
And he rarely makes mistakes.
Bortles, who was named the Beef O’Brady Bowl MVP after UCF beat Ball State 38-17 to cap last season’s 10-4 run, has not thrown an interception in a game since Oct. 27, 2012, and has attempted 217 passes without an interception. He’s complemented by running back Storm Johnson — a Doak Walker Award candidate as one of the nation’s top running backs — and a cast of big, physical receivers.
“We’ve got to be very fundamentally sound and make sure we’re studying a lot in our playbooks and just doing what we need to do,” junior safety Jesse Della Valle said. “He’s a great player so we have to be on our A game.”
It would help to have Hull, too.
Although he’s not a rambunctious personality, Hull has other ways of lifting a defense, senior safety Malcolm Willis said.
“You don’t technically have to be a very vocal person to lead on our team and his play really shows,” Willis said. “He leads by example. He’s not really the vocal-type of player like (Michael) Mauti or (Gerald) Hodges was last year, but he makes just as many plays and younger guys, and even the older guys like myself, look up to guys like that who show up on game day and really step up.”
While Hull is no lock to play at this point, even if his early-week prognosis looks good, Penn State defenders know they can rely on another linebacker — one who has never missed a game in his career. Glenn Carson, who is second on the team with 16 tackles, is set to play in his 41st straight game.
Carson’s play has been praised by the coaching staff after each of the Nittany Lions’ first two games.
“He’s a tough guy. He’s improved. He’s quicker, he’s faster, he’s stronger,” O’Brien said. “He loves playing for Penn State and he believes and I believe that he has a future in football. He’s gone out there in the first two games and done an excellent job of playing tough, physical, Penn State football.”
Wartman, a redshirt freshman, has also played physical in the first two games. The physicality has left him with a sore shoulder that required a wrap since the second half of the Syracuse game. Wartman was seen sporting a hefty bag of ice on his shoulder during the Eastern Michigan game.
O’Brien is not concerned about Wartman’s availability, however, and said the outside linebacker will play.
While not on the team’s injury report, O’Brien addressed the health situations of a few other players in addition to Hull, Kline and Wartman. Running back Bill Belton is probable with an unspecified injury while safety Ryan Keiser is questionable for the UCF game, O’Brien said.
Keiser was knocked out of the Eastern Michigan game early and did not return to action.
Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach has suffered no setbacks from a dislocated finger that forced him to exit the Eastern Michigan game for a few plays. Dieffenbach, in addition to right tackle Adam Gress, are expected to play, too.
“My finger’s great now,” Dieffenbach said. “I didn’t feel it when it happened. I got up from the pile and the ref looked at me and told me I had to get off the field and I thought had done something wrong and I saw he was looking at my finger and my finger was dislocated. So I had to go off the field and pop it back in and I’m good to go.”