Joe Paterno was joking the other day that he doesn't want to look at tapes of Penn State's performance against USC in the Rose Bowl. Who can blame him?
But even with the season opener against Akron now just days away, the memories of the Trojans' 38-24 romp last January still apparently linger with others in the Nittany Lions' camp.
“I feel like we're all going into the season as if we have something to prove,” senior linebacker Josh Hull said. “We had a good year last year, but we didn't end it quite the way we wanted to, so we all have a little notch on our shoulder and we're trying to get rid of it this year. We're going to show everyone we're the real deal.”
If Penn State is to blot out memories of last season's finale, the linebacker corps will surely play a leading role. It's one of the Lions' biggest assets, filled as it is with postseason award candidates and blue-chip newcomers. Hull will be returning to the starting lineup and will be flanked by Lombardi Award watch-lister Navorro Bowman and All-America hopeful Sean Lee, who is returning after sitting out the 2008 season to rehab his injured knee.
Even after potential starter Michael Mauti suffered a season-ending injury of his own in August -- Hull called it “a huge loss” -- the Lions are feeling optimistic about their prospects, so much so that they've dawdled in finding a nickel back in the hope that their linebackers will be able to make the plays necessary to slow down pass-happy opponents.
“Our linebackers have been good,” Paterno said. “We'll have to see what happens this week. Josh Hull gets passed over because the other guys -- Lee and Bowman -- get the stats. … But if our linebackers can play the way we think, and they can be outside linebackers who can walk away from the line of scrimmage and help on the pass game, we may not use a nickel. We'll see.”
Hull finished with 75 tackles last year, ranking second on the team. He acknowledged he got off to a slow start but said he felt as though he made strides in the second half of the season and is looking for some carryover this fall, especially with Lee and Bowman playing alongside him. Said Hull, “Playing with two possible All-Americans I think is going to elevate my play.”
A former walk-on who played his high school football at nearby Penns Valley High, Hull has gained nearly 40 pounds since arriving on campus in 2005. He came in weighing 204 pounds and will be at about 240 Saturday against the Zips. The extra ballast has made a big difference, but Hull said he has grown more profoundly in his understanding of the game.
“At Penns Valley, I feel like I was very raw. I just lined up, saw the ball and ran to it and tried to make plays,” he said. “At Penn State, I'm really understanding where other people are in the defense on certain plays, where I need to fit, how to tweak my alignment just a little bit so I can get to the ball a half a step earlier. Little things like that -- anticipating what's going to happen based on down and distance, certain formations and tendencies that an offense has -- I try to put in my memory bank. I think it's going to help me get to the football a little bit faster.”