Had Penn State linebacker Mike Hull opted to transfer to Pitt (an opportunity he explored in July, when the NCAA sanctions hit), he would have missed out on a season that has seen him develop into one of the defense's most important reserves.
Had he left, he would have never made all the big plays he has made -- the 74-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Navy, the blocked punt teammate Mike Yancich recovered for a TD last week against Ohio State, the three sacks, the interception against Iowa.
Had he left, he might never have seen Craig Fitzgerald, the new strength and conditioning coach, lick the floor of the remodeled weight room.
Wait -- what?
He'll do up-downs and he'll lick the floor if he made a mistake, Hull said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning.
And a mistake in the mind of the hyperkinetic Fitzgerald is, according to Hull, doing an exercise out of order or something.
By all accounts Hull has been one of those who has fully embraced all of Fitzgerald's methods, short of floor-licking. And that in turn has resulted in a prominent role in the long-yardage defense. When an opponent faces an obvious passing situation, he is inserted in place of middle linebacker Glenn Carson, with cornerback Adrian Amos replacing Malcolm Willis at a safety spot and Da'Quan Davis filling in for Amos at corner.
Coach Bill O'Brien went so far as to call Hull a semi-starter earlier this season. And starting outside 'backer Mike Mauti said the redshirt sophomore's rise to prominence has been no accident.
He came in undersized for a linebacker, Mauti said a few days after the Navy game. He wasn't as big as a lot of us. In the past eight months, he's one of the strongest guys, pound for pound, on the team. He's gotten in the weight room. And you saw how fast he is on Saturday. He's as tough as nails. The more experience he gets, the better he's going to be on the field.
That has proven out. Hull continues to play a big role, not only on defense but special teams. And it appears Fitzgerald can be thanked in part for that.
It's a lot different than last year, Hull said of the strength and conditioning regimen. Last year was all that high-rep stuff, the whole way through the season. Here, we're still getting a lot of good work in, with the squats and everything. But they're keeping us fresh as well, so our legs are a lot more fresh compared to last year, and we're ready to win these next four games.
The first of those comes Saturday at Purdue (3-5), as the Lions (5-3) seek to bounce back from last Saturday's ragged 35-23 loss to Ohio State -- a game in which Hull's second-quarter blocked punt resulted in the day's first touchdown.
He repeated Wednesday what he said on Saturday -- that the block came as the result of an overload on one side of the formation.
I think we had one more guy than they could account for, he said. Our two guys got through and took up the shield, and I got through as well, and I just went through the middle and laid out and blocked the punt.
And Yancich was there for the recovery. The lead didn't hold up, and Hull was involved in another pivotal play in the third quarter, when the Lions ran a fake punt on fourth-and-9 from the Ohio State 43. Punter Alex Butterworth threw incomplete for running back Derek Day, though Hull, another possible receiver on the play, was open. One problem seemed to be that he and Day were too close to one another.
I was right where I was supposed to be, Hull said. ... I saw him throw the ball and it was kind of floating up there, so I went over toward Derek a little bit closer, to see if I could get a tipped ball or something, just in case.
The Buckeyes assembled a touchdown drive immediately after that play, then another later in the third quarter, to take command. And now the Lions are trying to pick up the pieces for the stretch run. There has been an emphasis this week on correcting the assignments that were missed against Ohio State, and keeping the intensity level high -- because, Hull said, going from 107,000 fans to however many fans they have at Purdue, we've got to bring the intensity and create that for ourselves.
And, he added, We obviously can't change the past. But in the film room it was, basically, we beat ourselves. They made plays whenever they had to make plays, and we didn't. We just have to move on from that. The mood was obviously a little bit down, but we're looking forward to playing this Saturday.
Son of former PSU linebacker Tom Hull, Mike fully understood the tradition the school has had at that position, and it informed his decision during his recruitment out of Canon-McMillan High a few years back. But he thought long and hard about fleeing for Pitt when everyone on the roster was declared, in essence, a free agent in July.
It was definitely one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make, he said.
But in the end, he stayed.
Ultimately the decision was made because I love Penn State, he said. I love going to school here, and I love my teammates. That was basically the deciding factor.
Just think of all he might have missed -- all the things, great and small. And, for that matter, down and dirty.