When the names of Butkus Award semifinalists came out earlier this week, Mike Hull’s name was not on the shortlist of candidates with hopes of being named the nation’s top linebacker.
Hull couldn’t care less.
“I really don’t play for awards or anything like that,” Hull said. “It doesn’t really mean anything to me. The only thing that matters is finishing out the season strong and helping our defense be successful every Saturday, that’s the most important thing.”
A team captain who switched to middle linebacker from the outside before the season started, Hull leads Penn State with 83 tackles through seven games. Only two players on the Butkus Award watch list — Tennessee’s A.J. Johnson and UCLA’s Eric Kendricks — have more tackles than Hull. Both have played one more game.
Hull was all over the field Saturday against Ohio State. The 6-foot, 232-pounder from Canonsburg made a team-high 19 tackles with 21/2 for losses. He also picked off a fourth-quarter pass that Penn State’s offense turned into a touchdown.
“From day one he’s embraced everything we’ve asked him to do as a team, as a leader, in the defensive scheme, in the defensive techniques, which isn’t always easy to do as a senior,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He’s a model. I think the one thing you would love him to do is be a little more vocal, but that’s not who he is and when he speaks people listen and that’s powerful. He needs to stay true to who he is. I think he’s special.”
It didn’t take Franklin and the rest of the coaches long to realize this.
During spring practice the first team offense faked an inside run but quarterback Christian Hackenberg held onto the ball before giving to a wide receiver on a reverse. Hull, who was the first tackler in to stop the inside run, realized his mistake and had the quickness and awareness to chase down the true ball carrier before any damage was done.
Hull, who was added to the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list after his performance against the Buckeyes, has done more than just make plays and rack up tackles. He’s made those beside him better.
Consider the fact that Hull entered this season coming off an injury plagued 2013 where he battled knee injuries for most of the season. He started at a new position with sophomores Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman on either side of him. Wartman had eight starts last season but his playing time was cut as the season wore on. Brandon Bell played sparingly as a true freshman but emerged to start in the season finale against Wisconsin.
Both young linebackers have developed nicely taking their cues from Hull. Wartman has found that his position has been consistently better with Hull in the middle directing traffic.
“He doesn’t stop,” Wartman said. “His motor just can just go. If he’s not making the tackles he’s right next to the ball when the ball’s on the ground. That’s one thing I respect about him and that’s one thing I want to learn from him.”
return comes soon
Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach spoke with reporters for the first time since the summer and said he is “dying to be out there” playing with his teammates on Saturdays.
He may do just that this week.
Dieffenbach had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee after he was injured in March. He’s progressed nicely in his recovery and has been practicing for the last few weeks. Dieffenbach said he’s up to his normal playing weight of 305 pounds having lost weight to ease the stress on his knee during rehab. He started putting weight back on during training camp in which he took part in aerobic exercises to get back in shape.
“I’ve had an amazing experience here and I want to be out there with my guys more than anything else,” Dieffenbach said. “But I will know when it’s ready and I’m not going to put my leg at risk, I will make sure the doctors won’t let me out there unless it’s 100 percent so I can’t wait to be out there with my guys and playing in games.”
Penn State could get another lineman back when it takes on Maryland on Saturday. Left tackle Donovan Smith could return after he was shaken up in the second half against Ohio State. Smith left the game and did not return.
“That’s to be determined,” Franklin said of Smith’s status. “We’re anticipating being able to have (Smith at left tackle, Andrew Nelson at right tackle and Angelo Mangiro at center.)”
Punting contest continues
The easiest way to fix Penn State’s punting problem is simple — and preferred.
Franklin knows that’s not going to be possible. He also knows Penn State must improve as the Nittany Lions are ranked dead last in punting average out of 128 FBS teams.
As a result, the Nittany Lions will continue to hold an open competition with hopes it will produce a serviceable punter for the rest of the season. So far, freshmen Chris Gulla and Danny Pasquariello have underwhelmed when it’s come time to boot the ball away.
Gulla is averaging just over 37 yards per punt while Pasquariello is averaging just over 36 yards per. Gulla has been the primary punter with 28 punts to Pasquariello’s seven. Franklin said both have been “streaky.”
“We’re going to do some things and try and help them and we made adjustments last game,” Franklin said. “We’re going to use our directional punt team, do some things to try to help them, put the pressure on the other 10 guys, take it off them, but we made that adjustment last week. No different than anything else. There is no magic wand. They’re going to keep working hard and preparing and having really good dialogue back and forth, things we can do to help them as well.”
Barbour weighs in on officiating
Franklin was asked if he was satisfied that the Big Ten admitted officials erred on a few calls in his team’s game against Ohio State but chose to not say anything, insisting the team has moved on.
Franklin said he didn’t even bring the called interception that should’ve been an incomplete pass and a field goal that was kicked with no time left on the play clock up with his team.
On Tuesday evening, Penn State Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour commented on the situation through a release issued by the athletic department. Barbour said she and Franklin “were in touch with the Big Ten Conference office through the course of Sunday and Monday and the conference clarified a number of the issues that arose out of Saturday’s game.”
Barbour referred to the original statement from the Big Ten that the replay equipment malfunctioned when it came time to review the interception and that a penalty should’ve been enforced on the Buckeye field goal.
“Regardless of circumstance, when two teams battle as hard as Penn State and Ohio State did last weekend, it's difficult when the flow of the game is influenced by something or someone other than the players and coaches,” Barbour said in the release. “The stakes are very high in college football, particularly in the Big Ten, and collectively we need to ensure that we do everything in our power to offer game conditions that allow all student-athletes to have the very best possible experience. We owe it to them.”