Thursday, April 24, 2014
PSU's Hull aims to break out in final season
By Josh Moyer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull was once a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt, but that all seems like a lifetime ago for the Penn State linebacker.
LB Mike Hull, who has seen a lot of changes at Penn State, expects 2014 to be his breakout season.
The redshirt senior is going into his fifth season at Penn State, and he's already endured many changes and ups-and-downs. He watched his team adjust to three head coaches -- five, including the interims -- and four defensive coordinators during his career. And he bided his time as a redshirt sophomore, playing behind two All-Big Ten talents, before standing on the sideline as a starter for parts of four games last season due to injury.
But now, in his final season, and with his final college coach, Hull believes it's finally his time to break out.
"It's something I've been waiting for for a long time," Hull told ESPN.com. "It's my time to step up and lead the team and lead a good defensive unit to where we can win a Big Ten championship."
Hull isn't the loudest player on the field. He's not one to grab a mic during a pep rally and spearhead some impromptu speech like cornerback Jordan Lucas. But he's become the anchor of this defense, not unlike middle linebacker Glenn Carson last season, and he's wasted no time in making an impact on a staff that's only known him for three short months.
"The guy who has stood out the most to me at this point is Hull," James Franklin said toward the end of spring practice. "He's done a nice job. He's smart, he's got great instincts -- he's not the biggest linebacker -- but he's quick, and he's powerful, and he's freakishly strong. I've been very pleased with him."
Hull stands at just 6-foot, 227 pounds. But he's also played well enough to stand out to every coordinator who coached him -- and, seemingly, all for different reasons. Tom Bradley watched Hull zoom past would-be blockers as a freshman, clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and briefly tried him at safety. Ted Roof watched him out-lift every one of his teammates as a sophomore, when he benched 405-pounds to best offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly triple digits.
John Butler praised him last season as an "all-around outstanding football player." And, now, current coordinator Bob Shoop sees a sense of maturity and leadership in Hull that he's rarely found elsewhere, in part because he's learned from so many tutors.
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"Mike's very mature," Shoop said. "He's football smart. He's very distinctive. ... There's not a player I trust more than him. He's a really special guy, and he's the undisputed quarterback of the defense."
At this time last season, Hull was the favorite from experts and fans alike when it came to naming the Nittany Lions' next breakout star. But, as Hull acknowledged, that title never quite materialized. With a nagging leg injury, one that didn't see him return to 100 percent until late October, he didn't live up to expectations until the final five games of the season. And, during that stretch, Hull unsurprisingly led Penn State in tackles (44). The No. 2 tackler, Carson, had 35 in that same stretch.
With a defense lacking in depth, even more will be expected of Hull this season. There are a few things working against him -- namely new schemes and a new coordinator -- but he's been in this position before. Twice.
"It's been easier to learn just because of the way [Shoop] packages everything together," Hull added. "It seems hard, but it's simple once you get used to it."
The last era of Penn State players who competed under three different head coaches were underclassmen in 1948, so Hull's position is a unique one. Still, the soft-spoken linebacker has tried to take it in stride.
Hull has taken on extra responsibility at middle linebacker, after playing outside last season. And Shoop has been pleased with how he's adjusted to an aggressive scheme that places extra emphasis on sacks and tackles-for-loss.
Hull, a Pennsylvania native could've had a different future if that proverbial coin landed on Pitt instead of Penn State. He could've had a more stable career. But he's not looking back now; he's finally looking forward to being "the guy" at Linebacker U.
"I don't want to compare something that never happened," Hull said. "I'm thankful for my time at Penn State. It's been one of the wildest times."