Linebacker U returns three of its four starters from 2011, losing Nate Stupar to graduation. The fifth-year senior took over full time last year for Michael Mauti, who tore his ACL during non-conference play. Mauti will be joined this season by fellow 2011 starters outside linebacker Gerald Hodges and middle linebacker Glenn Carson. The three should--should--team up for one of the most formidable linebacking corps we've seen in years.
Of course, all of this is drastically helped by the retention of linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden by Penn State's new head coach Bill O'Brien. By keeping Vandy (and Larry Johnson, Sr.) on the new staff, it will allow already-great units like the linebackers to maintain their cohesion and style of play. And with the kind of talent Penn State has backing the line, you don't mess with what has worked to produce annually all-conference and all-American linebackers.
Here is where Penn State stands, heading into the spring:
|James Van Fleet||SR/GR|
I've left out some of the walk-on freshmen, but included some guys who we've heard their names before. Let's break this down into three categories: starters, backups, practice guys.
The Starters - It's obvious here that Penn State will have a solid, if not great, starting three in 2012. Mauti showed flashes of brilliance in 2010 and early 2011. His two ACL injuries are something to worry about. But he's already gone through the rehab process once and should be ready again by the fall. Hodges won consecutive Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards last season. Carson got a bad wrap from some fans last season. I'm reserving judgement on him, considering it was his first year starting. And we've been through the "our MLB sucks!" thing before, with Josh Hull. He didn't turn out too shabby, if I remember correctly.
The one X-factor here is Khairi Fortt. He started the 2010 Illinois game, and has seen frequent action over the past two seasons. I'm not saying he will dislodge Mauti or Hodges, or even make a run at the middle starting spot. He could definitely push for a split-time situation similar to what Stupar and Mauti played under last season. It would be good to see him get more time. Fortt is a really intriguing prospect, the No. 5 linebacker coming out of high school two years ago. I'm also not convinced the staff would redshirt him this year, as the depth behind the starting three isn't exactly inspiring confidence. Fortt could be the most valuable non-start on defense.
The Backups - If you've followed my blogging before, you know that I really like Van Fleet on special teams. But he's also a pretty decent backup linebacker, considering he's a walk-on. As of last season, he wasn't even on scholarship. With him are Brad Bars, Mike Hull, Dakota Royer and Ben Kline. Bars is more like a DE/LB hybrid, but saw time on special teams and came up big with a punt block against Illinois. He wasn't very highly recruited out of high school, but did play in the All-American game two years ago. We could see much more of him, especially on special teams.
Hull made 18 tackles last year from his linebacker-slash-safety spot. Bouncing around between the two positions during the off season didn't help too much, but he's a really good athlete who can level a ball carrier when needed. His coverage skills were too good for him to sit on the sideline, leading to the spot in the secondary. Depending on who the new defensive coordinator is, he could end up at one or the other, or developing his hybrid role even further.
Royer didn't play last year, dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. With Stupar gone, it's likely Royer will get a better shot to break into the two-deep this year. He's been mostly worked out at the Fritz linebacker position, which means he'd backup Mauti.
Kline is likely to get some looks this year on special teams and maybe in the two-deep. The Dallastown native was originally a Pitt commit, but switched to Penn State when The Wannstache was pushed out.
Mop-Up Duty and Holuba Hall Heros - Kyle Lucas and Ken Pollock will make more of a mark on the practice fields than in Beaver Stadium, but they have shown up in the "participants" list a few times. They're on this list so you're not like "Who's that???" when they trot out onto the field with two minutes left in the game and Penn State up 31-3.
Stay tuned tomorrow as we swing back to the offense.