There are quite a few opinions of what has to happen for the Penn State football team to have a successful season this fall.
But nearly every list likely includes variations on the same need: Mike Hull has to stay healthy.
To say the senior linebacker is a key component to the Nittany Lion defense may even be an understatement.
Hull brushes off the worries.
“You can’t really control that stuff,” Hull said. “You can’t worry about it. You’ve got to give it all you’ve got every single time, and whatever’s meant to be is meant to be.”
Despite missing two games last season, and most of two others, he finished second on the team in both total tackles, with 78, and solo stops with 44. He had 4 1/2 tackles for losses, broke up two passes, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
He also played big in one of the team’s biggest wins last season, racking up 10 tackles in a four-overtime win over Michigan, including a pair of tackles for losses on the Wolverines’ final drive of regulation. Later, he broke up a deep pass in overtime short of the goal line and Michigan had to settle for a field goal.
While the numbers were good, it’s the other parts of his game that make him even more important, and the latest in Penn State’s long list of linebackers with the NFL likely in their future.
It’s his vision, his instincts and fundamentals that make him so important. It’s also his leadership and all that goes on inside his helmet that increase his value.
“He has great strength for us,” head coach James Franklin said. “He’s a guy that not only does he have the physical tools in terms of being able to run and being able to change direction and freakishly strong, but he processes information fast as well. You watch the tape, and the offense is running a counter play and they start out going this way and everybody on the defense takes three steps in that direction, Hull takes two and is already moving in the other direction.”
The product of a Penn State football family — his father and uncle were Nittany Lions in the 1970s, with his father on the undefeated 1973 team — the game has been a part of his life since the beginning. He said there was no pressure to follow the legacy, and there were offers from other schools, but he knew where he had to be.
And at the end of last season he knew what he had to do to be prepared for this fall, taking on a greater leadership role, even if he is not a vocal leader.
“I’m more of a lead-by-example kind of guy,” said the product of Canon-McMillan High School near Pittsburgh. “Where I’m from, that’s how you grow up — it’s work hard. But now I realize that I have to be more vocal, get people lined up where they have to be if we want our defense to be as successful as possible.”
Part of that leadership role is moving him from outside linebacker back to the middle.
“I like it,” Hull said. “I played inside my whole high school career, all growing up, played my sophomore year here, had a good year playing the middle. So I’m just really excited to move back there and help out as much as I can.”
It was also necessary for the Nittany Lion coaches to put one of their best players in that spot, even if his 6-foot, 232-pound frame is considered a little undersized for the position by some observers.
“We need him to be really verbal, and he was more verbal this spring than he’s ever been and he’s comfortable doing that now than ever before,” Franklin said. “I think he is going to have a really big year for us. And think there is a lot of confidence that he has gained from his teammates and how he’s conducted himself over his entire career here, and a lot of coaching confidence from the coaching staff, as well. I brought that thing up about his size because when we moved him inside to Mike, I know there’s a lot of questions about that, is he big enough to do that? We think he is.”
There’s no doubt about his toughness.
He suffered a sprained knee in the season-opener last year, but missed just the two games. In high school, he once wrestled after suffering a separated shoulder and he frequently fought off back pain.
He said he rested his knee for a couple months after last season ended, and he was feeling fine through spring practices and as training camp started last week.
Still, plenty rests on his broad shoulders.
Penn State returns seven starters, but the team is thin on experienced depth — a fact not lost on the coaches.
“There’s ways to scheme around any limitations and depth at any position and specifically as it relates to linebacker,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said, noting the team possibly using a 4-2-5 formation, or a “star” package with a flexible, athletic player on the field.
Whatever the formation, much will still be expected of Hull and his good health will be key.
“You just have to take it day by day,” Hull said. “Just work on your craft every single day and if it’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen.”
The senior likes his, and the Nittany Lions’ chances.
Said Hull: “I really think we can have a good defense if everything falls into place.”