Penn State linebackers coach Brent Pry gazed over at Mike Hull being interviewed during the team’s annual Media Day on Monday.
“I wish we had three of him,” Pry said with a chuckle.
The problem is the Nittany Lions don’t have three of the senior, who will start at middle linebacker.
Heading into fall camp, who will flank Hull at the two outside linebacker spots remains a mystery.
It’s a strange situation for a school that is renowned for the position.
Will it be Brandon Bell, who made an impact in the season finale against Wisconsin?
Will it be Nyeem Wartman, who started eight games, but saw his playing time diminish as last season wore on?
Will true freshmen Jason Cabinda or Troy Reeder be in the mix?
Will someone else, like former State College High School standout Matt Baney, emerge?
Or will the Nittany Lions scrap the traditional 4-3 defense and play with two linebackers and five defensive backs?
“We’ve got several guys we’ve got our eyes on to fill the outside backer position,” said Pry, who followed head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt. “It could be somebody from the safety position. We’re still searching to find the best three, let alone finding two deep. There’s tremendous opportunity at the position right now.”
Bell and Wartman seem to have the inside track.
As a true freshman last season, Bell got into 10 games and began to make an impact down the stretch. In his first start in the season finale, the 6-foot-1, 222-pounder had six tackles in a 31-24 upset of No. 14 Wisconsin. Bell’s hit on Badger quarterback Joel Stave led to an interception for C.J. Olaniyan.
“I was grateful for the opportunity,” said Bell, who finished the season with 24 tackles. “I would have liked to do what I did at the end of the season more at the beginning. I had to prove myself, which I felt I did.”
After watching tape of last season, Pry said Bell shows maturity and promise.
“Any time you watch a true freshman on tape in big games and he’s playing fast and hard, that’s a good sign because it can be overwhelming for a true freshman to play like he did,” Pry said. “Honestly, to have him perform the way he did was a good start to his career and something we can build on.”
Bell says he feels a lot better entering this camp. Instead of a wide-eyed freshman, he’s experienced the rigors of practice.
“I’m definitely much more comfortable,” he said. “When you’re a freshman and you come in the summer, you don’t know what’s going on. Getting the snaps I did last year, I know how things work. Going through a training camp last year, I definitely know how things work. I’m a lot more confident and comfortable.”
Wartman also feels more confident after last season.
In his redshirt freshman season, he had 32 tackles, including eight in the Nittany Lions’ dramatic 43-40, four-overtime triumph over Michigan.
But often, Wartman found himself on the sidelines as Penn State moved safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to a linebacker spot.
“There were games where I played good and games I played bad,” said Wartman. “I know that I can do a lot better. I know what to expect. I got stronger, faster and a little bigger. I’m expecting to go out there and display talent for my coaches and show them I can play for them.”
Unlike Bell, Wartman did not have all spring to impress Franklin’s staff. He was limited by an ankle injury.
Pry said that both need to take advantage of their incumbent experience.
“The challenge with those guys is they’ve got to quickly reach their potential,” he said “They both have tremendous abilities and a lot maturity for young guys. ... They to me are guys who need to have a great camp. ... Learning the position, understanding the position, mastering the techniques of the position, those things need to happen and they need to happen fast. They are both pretty good students of the game.”
Both know that there’s going to be plenty of competition. Reeder and Cabinda have made impressions already. Sophomore Gary Wooten, who saw mostly action on special teams, was highly rated coming out of high school in Miami.
Competition will be hot and heavy.
“That’s the challenge of a coach each and every year — you’ve got to make those guys believe there’s opportunity,” Pry said. “There’s always younger guys down the depth chart that are hungry to replace an older guy or an older guy that all of a sudden has found his way, grown up and it’s time for him to play. I think the opportunity is always there. That’s what you want.
“... Sometimes it’s easier than others. With the lack of experience at my position, it’s apparent to each one of the guys that there’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Wartman relishes the competition, something he thinks hurt him last season.
“That’s great,” the 6-1, 236-pounder said. “There’s no complacency. I think that was one of my problems last year — I was complacent. The spot was pretty much going to be given to me because of some injuries and some people leaving the previous years. I like the fact that you know you’re chasing or someone is chasing you. It makes everyone better.”
“Competing is something we’re turning up a lot around here,” added Bell, who is watching tapes of former Penn State great NaVorro Bowman and recent Hall of Fame inductee Derrick Brooks in hopes of improving. “Competition is every day and it brings out the best in everybody.”
Both said every linebacker in camp will have the opportunity to impress the coaches, thanks to the aggressive, in-your-face style Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop want to employ.
“One thing I like about this defense is they tell if you make an error with aggression that it’s better than making an error being conservative,” Wartman said. “At least we know that we can go get it and if you make an error you don’t have to worry about coming out of the game.”
“That’s the only way you should play defense honestly,” Bell said. “Attacking the opposing team’s quarterback is all we want to do.”
Whatever mistakes are made, the players know that they will come under scrutiny from Nittany Nation. The fans certainly have voiced concerns about a position on defense that yielded many great moments and players in Penn State history.
“For me, I haven’t shown it, yet,” Bell said. “It’s rightful for them to question it. I’m definitely looking forward to answering the questions. ... I have to show consistency and keep it coming this season.”
“No linebacker who ever came to Penn State is going to tell you they didn’t come to Penn State because it’s Linebacker U,” Wartman said. “We know that we’ve got to maintain that. We know there’s other schools that claim it. We’re going to try our best to get better for our team and continue that tradition.”