With Mike Hull Gone, Linebacker U Looks For Next Man Up
By Ben Jones
It’s a position that has helped shape the perception of the program for decades. Some of the nation’s best linebackers call State College home every year, replacing an elite linebacker who now calls the NFL home. Penn State has plenty of talent this year, but the question still remains. Who’s next?
Mike Hull, Drew Boyce, TJ Rhattigan
With all due respect to the other departures in this category, from the function standpoint, Hull is the man to replace in this unit. With deceptive speed, a high football IQ, and a motor that made up for any physical shortcomings, Hull was the latest in a long line of talented linebackers. Replacing Hull isn’t an impossible task, as the marquee linebacker at Penn State has been replaced year after year, but it’s still one of the biggest priorities on the roster.
Matthew Baney, Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda, Jordan Dudas, Koa Farmer, Jack Haffner, Ben Kline, Troy Reeder, Brandon Smith, Evan Steinfeld, Von Walker, Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten.
The good news for fans is the fact that even after losing Hull, there are plenty of talented linebackers waiting in the wings. Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell will likely get two of the starting spots, with the likes of Jason Cabinda, Koa Farmer, and Troy Reeder not far behind. It remains to be seen how the position shakes out exactly, but there are warm bodies with capable talent ready to take that next step. While still a long shot, Matthew Baney continues to be a linebacker who gets all sorts of praise from teammates and coaches but sees limited action. He might be overdue for a shot in the bright lights early in the season to see what he can do.
Greatest Strength: Experience
Even if Hull leaves an opening in this unit, there are plenty of linebackers who have played their fair share of snaps on the defense. Wartman is a guy defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has had a lot of praise for, and Bell has seen plenty of time in his own right. Playing time doesn’t equal quality playing time, but there are worse things than experience, even if the experience hasn’t always been good. Overall, this group has the makings of another solid corps by the time it’s all said and done.
Greatest Weakness: No Obvious No. 1
This may not be an issue for long, but the answer to the question “Who will anchor this unit?” is still to be determined. It seems reasonable to assume it will be Wartman or Bell, but until they’re succeeding without Hull on the field it’s still a question mark. Shoop being a fan of those two is about all you need to hear in terms of their potential, but they still have to execute when the time comes.
With experienced players returning and talent on the way this summer, there is no lack of skill to give this unit depth. Some of the biggest questions though will be how smart the unit can play together, and how they can replace Mike Hull and find the next big name at so-called Linebacker U. There are question marks for this position, but all of them should result in fairly positive answers for Penn State.
Photo: Bobby Chen/Onward State