Many times last year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was asked to describe Mike Hull. He would often commend Hull's versatility and toughness and ability to be ready for any given play, and one time he called him "a Penn State linebacker."
Anybody who closely follows the program (and probably some people who don't) knows what O'Brien meant with that description. He meant that Hull fit in with the linebacker tradition.
Last year, Hull filled in and backed up the team's other starting linebackers, preserving the tradition on a part-time basis. That won't be the case anymore.
The beginning of spring practice Monday (in a blizzard -- a nice reminder of Happy Valley spring) signaled another fresh start for Penn State's linebacking core, with Hull, a junior; senior Glenn Carson; and freshman Nyeem Wartman each expected to act as one of those so-called "Penn State linebackers."
"I'm just really looking forward to watching Hull, Carson and Wartman play together," O'Brien said. "Those are three guys that didn't play together that much last year."
No, they didn't play that much together. Not at all. Of the three players, Carson was the only one who started, playing in the middle between seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. He had 85 tackles.
Hull's job was to play wherever he was needed. A lot of the time that meant linebacker and as a hybrid safety/linebacker. He backed up Mauti and notably replaced him for most of the Indiana game and the Wisconsin game, totaling 16 tackles in those games. On the season, he had 58 tackles and four sacks.
You either mostly noticed him those final two games, for his fumble return touchdown against Navy or for the reason O'Brien noticed him: special teams. Hull played on all aspects of kickoff and punt coverage. Against Ohio State, he blocked a punt that led to a touchdown.
Hull will likely need to get as many reps at linebacker as he can handle. The team really can't have it any other way. "We don't have a lot of depth at linebacker, that's for sure," O'Brien said.
Last year, Penn State went nearly the entire season without Wartman, who suffered a year-ending injury against Virginia, and had Mauti miss the last two games and there was essentially no reduction of the linebackers' effectiveness. Injuries will matter a lot more this year.
Dallastown High School graduate Ben Kline, expected to contribute as a linebacker, will miss the entirety of spring practice with a shoulder injury. The other possible contributors are all freshmen or sophomores, including Charles Idemudia, Gary Wooten and T.J. Rhattigan.
Penn State might have three linebackers capable of maintaining the school's tradition, but they need to stay healthy.