STATE COLLEGE — Penn State linebacker Ben Kline didn't have to return for the 2015 season.
Having already graduated and having already suffered two significant injuries that drastically affected his playing career with the Nittany Lions, the practical thing to do may have been to just move on to the next phase of his life. One that, perhaps, didn't include football.
Instead, the Dallastown High School graduate took the opposite route. He enrolled in graduate school at Penn State in order to fulfill all four years of his athletic eligibility and give himself one final shot at ending his career in State College on the field, rather than the sideline.
But, as hard as the last two seasons have been — 2013 was cut short because of a chest injury and then he missed all of 2014 with a torn Achilles — 2015 might be the most challenging for Kline.
Because, as bad as the Nittany Lion offense was in 2014, the defense was the polar opposite. It was one of the stingiest units in the nation. One of the major reasons why was because of linebacker Mike Hull. However, Hull is gone to the NFL and that leaves a giant hole in the middle of the Penn State defense — one that won't easily be replaced.
Kline hopes to help fill that hole.
"Mike was a great player," Kline said during Thursday's PSU media day. "But, we have a great group of guys and I think that everyone is going to have to step up to try to fill his shoes."
It will definitely take a group effort to replace Hull, which could ultimately prove to be the biggest challenge for Kline this season. By the time Penn State kicks off its 2015 season on Sept. 5 at Temple, it'll be 22 months since Kline last played a competitive snap.
However, even as a senior, his playing time is not guaranteed. The Nittany Lions have a deep group of linebackers, all vying for playing time, and only so many can be on the field at once. On top of that, this is the first season since 2011 that Penn State will enter with no scholarship restrictions, meaning that this could very well be the team's deepest linebacking group in recent memory. And then there's the legacy of carrying on the tradition of "Linebacker U."
"I think that's something that everybody who plays linebacker here feels a little bit," Kline said on trying to live up to the moniker of "Linebacker U." "It's a privilege to play linebacker here and we all understand that, all take it very seriously."
But, it's that very competition that's drove Kline and all of the linebackers through spring practices and summer workouts. That competition will continue to play out during the preseason practices that began Thursday.
If there is anything that could work in Kline's favor when trying to see the field this year, it could be the fact that head coach James Franklin may not see just one guy taking over Hull's role, but possibly a few.
"I think at linebacker, you can replace a Mike Hull with a combination of three guys, not just one," Franklin said.
It's been a tough career for Kline, to say the least. Up to this point, his time in Happy Valley has been defined by injuries rather than tackles. But, it hasn't impacted his outlook on his job, which is, when healthy, to help the team in whatever way possible.
"I'm just trying to go out there to help the team," Kline said. "And I think that's how it is for everybody. We're all going the same direction and that's trying to have as good a season as we can."
OTHER PSU NOTES
Breneman 100 percent: Kline isn't the only regional product hoping that 2015 will replace the sour memories of a lost 2014.
Cedar Cliff High School graduate and Mechanicsburg native Adam Breneman is also expecting to return from injury this season. After missing all of his sophomore campaign after undergoing knee surgery late in training camp, he returns fully healthy and ready to live up to the hype that surrounded him coming out of high school.
"I'll be 100 percent," he said at media day. "I've been healthy now all summer and have been working out full speed all summer, so I'm excited to get going today."
Breneman, whose father (Brian) is a 1982 Spring Grove High School graduate, was the top-rated tight end recruit for the Class of 2013 coming out of high school. After showing glimpses of his potential during his freshman season, injury slowed his development. Now, he enters his first season fully healthy in Franklin's system.
One way in which Breneman is expected to be a big contributor in 2015 is in the blocking game. It's no secret how dismal the offensive line was last year, and starting tight end Jesse James did little to help matters in the blocking game. But, that's where Breneman is different. Aside from being a good pass-catching tight end, he's willing to stay inside and block, which will go a long way in helping keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright this season.
While he's willing to stay inside and block, he may not need to as much. With four members of the offensive line returning from last year, that experience should allow Breneman to get out and run more routes and give the offense another weapon to utilize.
"Anytime your offensive line is improved, your team will improve," Breneman said. "This offensive line worked so hard this offseason and took a lot of criticism last year, but I think they took that to heart. ... Anytime you have a better line, it makes it easier for tight ends to get open, it's easier for wideouts to get open, and it gives the quarterback more time to throw. I'm looking forward to an improved offensive line."
No names, all game: One of the big changes that sparked a lot of conversation during the offseason was Franklin's decision to remove the player names from the back of the jerseys.
It was a move that Bill O'Brien implemented when he arrived in 2012. It served as a way for fans to recognize the players who stuck with the program during all of the sanctions that stemmed from the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
Franklin, not wanting to completely undo everything that O'Brien did in his two years, elected to keep the names on the jerseys last season. But, he wanted to return to the tradition of no names on the back for 2015 and Penn State will play by the motto: "Black Shoes. Navy Blues. No names. All game."
The decision was well-received by the players, including Kline.
"I think we all had conversation with guys who played here before and people who've been around the program a long time and know how much it means to them," Kline said. "So, we're really supportive of it in that regard and then just to be a part of such a powerful tradition is really special and we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org.