April 14, 2011

Blue-White Game Preview '11: 'Linebacker U' Returns

This post is part 4 of 5 this week previewing the major position groups heading into the Blue-White scrimmage this Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

2010 Penn State vs Northwestern-60
"Linebacker U" is back.
Part 4: The Linebackers

Quite the different tone I'll show you today. After all, you are reading Linebacker-U.com. Naturally, even in the down years, this is a position all of us here can get excited about covering. But this is not a down year; far, far from it. In fact, I'll venture to say that this could be Penn State's best two-deep set of linebackers in a decade. Yes, that means it could, could be better than 2009, better than 2005. But that all depends on whether or not this group of 'backers can achieve the level of success on the field as it projects on paper.

Last season was mired by injuries, much as it was in 2009, when Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee went five weeks without playing together. In 2010, Michael Mauti couldn't shake nagging injuries that kept him from going 100 percent for longer than a game or two. Gerald Hodges, who was projected to either start or get very significant playing time, broke his leg in week two on the first kickoff at Alabama.

But something else that 2010 brought was a much lower level of linebacker play overall in the chosen starting lineup. Granted, "Backer" (MLB) Chris Colasanti and "Sam"(SOLB) Bani Gbadyu put in their time and effort with the program. But it doesn't cover the fact that their performance last season left way too much to be desired. Part of that had to do with injuries to guys like Mauti and Hodges. But there were Khairi Fortt and Glenn Carson on the bench. You can't tell me they would have been much worse. At least it would have had some sort of long-term benefit.

Now two starters are gone, but four return with at least one start last season. Enough with what happened last season. Let's dive into what's happening right now at Linebacker U.

Penn State splits its outside linebackers into the "Fritz" and "Sam." The Fritz is the weakside linebacker, while the Sam plays the strongside. The Fritz is the strongest linebacker, playing a combination of inside and outside positions, based on the set. The Sam is the most athletic linebacker, playing a combination of outside linebacker and safety. The "Backer" position should be, according to a copy of PSU's defensive playbook, filled by a "powerful athlete with good judgment," and is referred to as the "Defensive Quarterback."

More after the break.

2010 Blue-White Game-53
Wide receivers beware. Gerald Hodges awaits.
The "Sam"

This position will start and end with Gerald Hodges this season. The very highly touted former safety played as a true freshman in 2009, and was slated to at least share the starting job with Bani Gbadyu last season. But Hodges broke his leg and it was done for 2010. Hodges is the quintessential specimen of a linebacker, particularly one at Linebacker U, standing at 6 foot 2 and 235 pounds. Probably the best part about Hodges is that he has extensive experience as a defensive back, giving him the closing speed and coverage skills needed to work on the strongside, where covering the tight end is one of the biggest jobs.

Hodges has been full strength this spring, so it's unlikely we will see another "Sam" start for the Blue Team this weekend. However, for the White Team starting "Sam," my money goes on redshirt freshman Mike Hull--provided he never wears this hair style again. Hull is the kind of guy who could handle the starting job in 2012, so a year as a primary backup with decent live game playing time will be great for his lack of experience.

Behind Hull is either perennial "lunch pail" linebacker James Van Fleet, or sophomore Dakota Royer. Royer is closer to a Pete Massaro-lite, so it's probably unlikely he will be on the strong side of the offensive formation. Van Fleet still isn't on scholarship, even though he's played in almost every game the last two seasons, including being a great special teams player, returning a blocked punt for a game-changing touchdown against Indiana last November.

The "Backer"

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-79
Glenn Carson is making a ton of noise
this spring as a "Backer."
This position is where really good Penn State linebackers go to finish out their careers and become great Penn State linebackers. Michael Mauti will hopefully stay healthy this year and make the jump to become one of those great Penn State linebackers. He definitely showed glimpses of it last season, when he wasn't being nagged by a shoulder injury. Though Hodges on the outside may be the more physically-gifted of the two best linebackers on the team, Mauti has been able to show he has exactly the kind of "Football IQ" needed to be the quarterback of the defense. I feel sorry for any receivers running crossing routes over the middle this Saturday, because Mauti will be 100 percent and playing like it.

Glenn Carson played fullback for a few games last year, but he's back to his native position at middle linebacker. Carson had surgery on herniated disks in his back in mid-2009, delaying his enrollment at Penn State until the spring of 2010. So eligibility-wise, he's a grayshirt sophomore this season, meaning he is in the same class as, for example, Silas Redd. Carson should be the starting White Team "Backer" this weekend, and I'm excited to see how he does with so much spotlight on him from the start of a game.

The rest of the middle is up for debate. Usually the three-deep linebackers aren't locked into one position or the other. So for now I'll have to leave it at just Mauti and Carson. It's more common for lower-string linebackers to be outside, anyway.

The "Fritz"

Okay, so why is it called the "Fritz" outside linebacker? The common story is that Penn State ordered pizza a half-century ago. The delivery guy was named Fritz. Come on, why not name your weakside linebacker position after a pizza deliveryman? It just makes so much sense, right? Aaanyway...

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-37
Pretty sure Khairi Fortt is ready to move on
from 2010 and hit some people this weekend.
Nate Stupar, despite fighting a hammy all spring, is likely to be the starter as he was in 2010. Stupar started seven games last year, splitting time with Mauti. Now, with Mauti on the inside, Stupar can have it all to himself. That is, if Khairi Fortt doesn't have something to say about it.

Fortt started one game (Illinois) last year as a true freshman, part of nine games in which he played. One of the very top linebacker prospects in 2010, Fortt has a chance this weekend to start for the Blue Team and give fans a sense of what may be in store for the fall. Even if Fortt doesn't overtake Stupar in the race to be "Fritz," Saturday's scrimmage will be a very nice wrap up to a spring when he's been able to get a ton of experience and reps with the first team. Behind Fortt is likely Royer, who is more of a LB/DE hybrid, in the mold of Jerome Hayes, though not as stocky. Royer is likely to spend much of his time on special teams this year, but that's not a bad thing.


So this may be the return of Linebacker U after a one-year absence last season. With a projected starting lineup of Hodges, Mauti and Fortt for the Blue Team this weekend, and the addition of a full-strength Stupar in the fall, this is a group of four linebackers that should excite everyone. Yet even more exciting is the entire two-deep for this unit. Young guys like Hull, Royer, and Carson have the tools to be unbelievable second-stringers this fall. That's not an insult. Penn State suffered immensely last fall due to lack of quality depth on defense. Even the linebackers weren't up to snuff and couldn't maintain the high level of play for an entire game.

Stay tuned tomorrow morning for Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

Part 1: Offensive BackfieldPart 2: Receivers & Tight EndsPart 3: Offensive & Defensive Lines
Part 4: Linebackers
Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

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  1. If this team gets its issues ironed at at DE and Safety, the defense could indeed be scary-good.

  2. No excitment here, this is a mediocre team that has major issues on both sides of the ball.

    Without the easy non con schedule this team is sub 500!

    Time for a change in management!

  3. Joe! Where ya been? We've missed out resident troll freepin' around here.

    Oh wait, no, not really.