Mike Hull will pull on his No. 43 Penn State jersey for the last time Saturday afternoon.
There could be other bowl games in warmer and more high-profile places, but the senior linebacker is content with facing Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“You can’t get much better than Yankee Stadium a couple of days after Christmas,” Hull said.
Getting to play in a bowl game is a present of sorts for Hull and his fellow seniors, who began the season thinking they’d never have a chance to play in the postseason.
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Santa Claus came in the form of a report from athletic integrity monitor George Mitchell in September, when he recommended for the NCAA to end the postseason ban imposed by sanctions regarding the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. The NCAA accepted the recommendations immediately.
“A lot of us, despite everything that’s gone on, feel really fortunate and blessed that we’ve been able to make it this far and keep the program where it’s at,” Hull said. “We feel a sense of pride that we were able to keep the program together for the future.”
It’s the future at middle linebacker that concerns the Penn State coaching staff.
Hull turned in one of the finest seasons in school history.
He led the Big Ten with 134 tackles and a unit ranked first nationally in rushing defense (84.8 yards per game), second in total defense (269.8 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (17.7 points per game).
“Obviously we’re not naive enough to not recognize that Mike Hull is not going to be around next year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “Although I’ve petitioned again and again. I don’t think it’s going to work.”
So Shoop and linebackers coach Brent Pry will have to find a replacement.
Gary Wooten played the middle in the final regular season game against Michigan State. He finished the season with 12 tackles.
Redshirt freshman Troy Reeder, from Wilmington, Del., has impressed in postseason practices. Ben Kline, who missed the season with a torn Achilles tendon from summer drills, may be available.
“We’ve got a lot of players who can play,” Hull said. “Troy, Gary and even Ben Kline if they want to throw him in there, they can all play. We’re going to be fine in the years to come.”
Shoop expects there to be quite a competition for the slot when April arrives.
“When you look into the spring, you’re going to think it’s going to be great competition at the middle linebacker spot with Troy Reeder and Gary Wooten ... and maybe a guy like Ben Kline,” Shoop said. “Our staff really doesn’t know enough about but everybody continues to say to me, wait, you’re going to really like (Kline) and like his style.”
Hull said each of them has strong points.
“Troy Reeder, once he figures it out, he’s going to be a really good player,” Hull said. “It just takes time, especially at the mike position because you have so much responsibility. He reminds me a lot of Glenn Carson, just the way he moves and has the same type of personality and instincts.
“Gary Wooten has come a long way since we started. These last couple of practices, he’s had his best practices, being vocal and a leader which is really promising for the future.
“Kline is a really good football player. He was one of our best players before he got injured. He’s really intelligent — more intelligent than me. If he can stay healthy next year and everything works out, I think they’re in good hands with those guys.”
Hull added that Kline hasn’t been sitting around since his injury
“He’s huge now,” Hull said. “He’s basically been locked in the weight room four or five months now. He looks the part, that’s for sure.”
Hull has enjoyed an enormous offseason over the break before the bowl. He’s garnered numerous awards, including Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and was named a third-team AP All-American.
“It’s really cool to get honored like that,” he said. “I don’t really think about it too much because a lot goes into it. Coach Shoop and coach Pry, they’re the ones who made it possible. Playing as a unit and total defense, that’s what makes that kind of stuff happen.”
Hull is looking to continue the tradition of “Linebacker U” in the NFL but is trying to remain focused on finishing out his Penn State career in style. He will play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 24 and prepare for the NFL Draft, which begins April 30. Draft projections have Hull listed among the Top 15 at both inside and outside linebackers.
“I’ll probably go train somewhere and do the Senior Bowl thing and see how everything goes,” Hull said. “I just want to take it one step at a time right now and focus on Boston College.”
He could be very busy since the Eagles feature a running attack that averages 252 yards per game.
Maybe, just maybe, Hull will wax a little sentimental before he sheds that No. 43.
“I’m going to prepare in the same way, but maybe on game day there’s going to be a little bit more emotion going on the sidelines,” he said. “I’m sure it will hit me while I’m playing the last game or maybe after I realize this is it. It’s going to be kind of a weird feeling because this has been home for the last five years.”