Penn State Spring Football: 25 Days to the Blue-White Game
Editor's Note: This is the first of a 19-part series that seeks to answer the questions surrounding the 2010 Penn State football team. Check back every weekday until the Blue-White game to see the question of the day. Today, we ask: "Who will be the next star linebacker?"
On Penn State's University Park campus, 43,000 students know who is Nittany Lion football's Big Man On Campus.
"The T-shirts," says Brittany Thrush, a junior who works in the Penn State ticket office, "don't say Running Back U."
And they don't say QB U, either — even though over the past five years PSU QBs have been named the Big Ten's Outstanding Offensive Player and first-team All-Big Ten. Twice.
All that glitters for the Nittany Lions is grit. As in tough, nasty, mean, hunky linebackers. Poz. Connor. Lee. Bowman. Even Mr. Moustache, Josh Hull.
Linebacker is the second most glamorous position at Penn State. And some years -- actually, a lot of years over the past dozen -- the top linebacker is the most celebrated, the most popular, the biggest fan favorite, on the team.
LaVar Arrington over Kevin Thompson. Paul Posluszny over Anthony Morelli. Dan Connor over Anthony Morelli. Sean Lee (injured or not) right up there with Daryll Clark. Handsome, hard-hitting, very often wholesome.
Star quality. They all had it.
Good on the field, too. Five of the top 12 single season tackle performances at Penn State have occurred over the past half-dozen seasons. They are: Connor, No. 2 all-time with 145 tackles in 2007; Lee (fifth, 138, 2007); Posluszny (10th, 116, both 2005 and 2006); and Josh Hull (10th, 116, 2009).
Now, in 2010, the Nittany Lions must replace their top three linebackers. Together, Lee, Hull and Navorro Bowman in 2009 had almost exactly a third of Penn State's tackles (33.7 percent, 295 of 874 tackles) and likewise for sacks and tackles for a loss (34.8 percent). They anchored a great defense that yielded an average of 12.23 points and 185 yards per game. Eight times in 13 games it gave up less than two touchdowns. And Bowman, for one, was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection.
Replacing those three won't be easy. Still, the drop-off may be less than most people think.
Four players are in line for the three starting linebacker spots. Senior Bani Gbadyu (6-foot-1, 231 pounds) is the most experienced. He ranked sixth on the team last year in tackles, with 37, while starting five games. Quiet starts, under the radar. But solid starts on a team loaded with talent.
Redshirt senior Nathan Stupar (6-1, 236) had a pair of starts in 2009 and was the 10th-ranked tackler, with 31 stops.
This spring, the third man on Penn State's first-string linebacking corps is senior Chris Colasanti (6-2, 238), a Michigan product with a mind for the game. He was a 2008 All-Big Ten Academic honoree who had 18 tackles last season.
The fourth Nittany Lion who will be in the starting rotation at linebacker in 2010 is Michael Mauti, a redshirt sophomore. Mauti (6-2, 231) missed last season after suffering a torn ACL in preseason practice in August. In 2008, he was one of three freshmen to play every game. Playing defense and special teams, he had 26 tackles, including a season-high seven stops against Michigan when he had a tackle for a loss and forced a fumble in that victory. Mauti's still rehabbing, which is part of the reason Colasanti is with the first group.
Also look for Gerald Hodges, a 6-2, 220-pounder who played safety as a freshman last season. Hodges is a quitessential Linebacker U candidate, having played quarterback in high school and also wrestling (he was 40-1 as a junior).
All this begs the question: Who will be Penn State's next star linebacker?
Assuming his recovery stays on schedule, Mauti could be the next Nittany Lion linebacking great.
He has longevity on his side; he has three more seasons of eligibility. He is quick and tenacious. He has the bloodlines; his dad Rich was a wide receiver and lettered at Penn State in 1975-76 and played eight years in the NFL. And the coaches recognize young Mauti's potential; he won the 2009 Jim O'Hora Award at the Blue-White Game as the defense's most improved player.
And he has geez, aw shucks good 'ole boy lucks straight from his home state of Louisiana.
We won't see anything of Mauti at the Blue-White Game on April 24, except on the sidelines. But don't get used it. He'll be all over the Beaver Stadium playing field come Sept. 4, when the Nittany Lions open the 2010 season against Youngstown State.