For the first time in several years, Penn State will return just one seasoned vet among its linebacker unit and this time it will be without longtime respected position coach, Ron Vanderlinden.
What the Nittany Lions do have is a group of fast, athletic, versatile backers who are preparing for multiple roles in a new defense.
Mike Hull will be playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons and he has been moved to the middle linebacker spot, a role usually reserved for big, run-stopping 'backers. At 6', 232 pounds, Hull doesn't seem to fit the mold.
Don't expect it to be a big hurdle for the team's most tenured linebacker.
According to Hull, the new staff doesn't approach the position much differently than his previous coaches. "This coaching staff emphasizes more blitzing techniques, getting downhill, making tackles for losses and big plays," Hull says, adding "It's still about getting proper leverage and staying inside out on the ball carrier."
Flanking Hull will be a diverse group of players that challenge the coaches to find their best roles.
Veteran Ben Kline (6'2", 238 lbs.) is ready for whatever comes, saying "At the end of the day, football is football. We're all playing the same game."
Last season, Kline saw time on the outside but after missing time this spring he isn't sure where he'll be in 2014. "That's something we'll look at, have some meetings and talk about where I best fit in and see where it heads."
Nyeem Wartman has seen snaps inside and out the last two seasons and is a favorite to start at one of the outside spots in 2014. He agrees with Hull about the new staff's approach:
"I wouldn't say there's a different approach. I'd say they expect the same thing out of a Penn State linebacker. They expect a relentless pursuit to the ball and they expect us to pretty much be the heart of the defense It's really about the linebacker brand that we have here."
As for where he'll end up this season, Wartman just wants to play, saying "I'm really willing to play anywhere the need me. Right now they have me at the Will (weak outside linebacker) spot but I'm willing to play anywhere that they put me. Wherever I can get the most snaps or give my team the best opportunity to win."
True sophomore Brandon Bell made waves late last season and will likely be in the mix on the outside, as well.
The linebackers will be a favorite story for Penn State fans as the staff becomes more comfortable with the individual players.
Reeder (@troyreeder9) January 18, 2014
Don't be surprised to see each linebacker play multiple positions during a game with Hull sliding outside on passing downs and Wartman or Kline manning the middle.
Incoming freshman Troy Reeder and sleepers Gary Wooten, Matthew Baney and Von Walker could also be in the mix and they fit the bill when it comes to versatility.
Reeder was a star lacrosse player who was All-State at both linebacker and running back while Wooten is a former defensive end and Walker was moved from offense to defense this spring.
There will probably be some growing pains this September as the players grow comfortable in their new roles but whatever mistakes are made will be made fast and aggressively.
It's a new era at Linebacker U but this group has the tools to carry on the brand...regardless of where they line up on Saturdays.
All quotes obtained firsthand.
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