The 2014 Penn State roster included 60 scholarship players that were available for their final game against Michigan State. 16 of those players were freshman being redshirted, leaving the Nittany Lions with only 44 scholarship players to take on the bruising Spartans.
That was the story of the year for James Franklin's Penn St team, who were playing at a major disadvantage all season against the rest of the Big 10 due to the loss of scholarships resulting from the Sandusky scandal (they will be allowed the full 85 scholarship total in 2015).
Despite that considerable disadvantage, which is most clearly seen in an offense that was depleted of OL and ranked 91st nationally in S&P, the Nittany Lions maintained their defensive tradition with S&P's 15th ranked defense.
It's exceptionally difficult to play great defense when the offense plays as poorly as Penn St's depleted squad did in 2014. Sudden changes of possession, poor field position, and the sheer volume of defensive snaps that have to be played will physically and mentally drain a defense while also exhausting their calls and ability to respond to offensive probing. Nevertheless, the Lions persevered all season.
By the time Penn State reached their final home game against the Spartans there were but two senior starters on the defensive unit. Strong safety Adrian Amos and inside linebacker Mike Hull.
Hull anchored the front and finished the season with 130 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, an INT, three pass break-ups, and a forced fumble while providing the heart of the Nittany Lion defense.
Much like fellow unsung hero, Byron Marshall, Mike Hull begun his season with a position change from Sam linebacker in former DC John Butler's 4-3 Over defense to playing Mike linebacker in Bob Shoop's more aggressive scheme. This proved to be the perfect marriage as Hull took off in that role and anchored a fantastic and classic Penn St front that proved Franklin's Nittany Lion program isn't going to yield ground on their tradition of defensive excellence.
Intangibles of a defensive leader
On field leadership is essential for a good squad, on defense no less so than offense. As the middle linebacker and de-facto leader of the unit, Hull excelled in the role as a quarterback on defense. Shoop entrusts his players with a lot of responsibility on the field for making adjustments and calls in response to offensive formations based on tendencies and match-ups.
"Before we'd have our team meeting on Tuesday to go over the game plan I'd meet with Hull and [the safeties] to talk through it and get their feedback," Shoop said.
In the blitz-heavy Lion defense, there are lots of potential checks and adjustments to be made in response to how the offense lines up. Hull would be responsible for adjusting base calls in the front as well as making audibles on blitz calls that would change up who blitzed from what angles. The blitz calls would be based on film study and meetings Hull would have with Shoop to scout opponents for tendencies and weaknesses.
The off field leadership by Hull was essential to building a Lion defense littered with underclassmen at key positions on the depth chart or on the practice field, waiting for their turn to come.
"He's not the most vocal leader, he leads more by example," Shoop noted of his linebacker. "He plays every practice snap like it's game day and made every call with the same urgency as if it was 3rd down. On the times when he did speak, he had a lot of credibility and everyone listened because they knew it'd be something important."
Despite having played a different position in 2013, Hull used film study to become intimately familiar both with Shoop's defense as well as their opponents, regularly making plays as a result of understanding opponent's tendencies and being able to track QB's eyes:
Penn State knew Barrett's predilection for coming back to the middle and trying to hit TE Heuerman up the seam from this alignment so Hull started by getting good depth on his drop and then flipped his hips and got his hands in the passing lane. There are often countless details that go into plays like this which are hard to discern watching from the bleachers or the couch.
Hull's understanding of the defense came up big one more time against Michigan St when a midweek injury left the Lions without their starting Will linebacker from a roster that didn't have a lot of scholarship linebackers to choose from. Hull volunteered to move over and as Shoop put it "he'd have played strong safety if we asked him to."
Hull had nine tackles at his new spot while helping the Lions hold the Spartans to 2.9 yards per carry and one of their slower offensive days for the season.
The ideal modern mike linebacker
Standing at 6'0 and 230 pounds, Hull is not a classic middle linebacker in size but his skill set makes him perfect for the needs of the position in defending modern offenses.
"He's the ideal middle linebacker for this defense," Shoop says. "Pound for pound he's one of the strongest guys on our team, and he's very quick but his ability to diagnose so quickly means that he plays even faster. His football IQ is off the charts."
Hull possesses a good deal of what Manny Diaz calls "download speed" which is essential for a linebacker in fitting into a gap control defense against systems that present as much confusion and variety as Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. In their contest at State College, Hull managed to finish the day with 19 tackles (18 in regulation), an INT, and 2.5 tackles for loss.
An offense like Ohio St's is perfect for demonstrating the dilemma of choosing defensive personnel to combat modern offenses. The Buckeyes hammer you between the tackles with zone-option plays that feature lead blocks on the edge from TEs like Jeff Heuerman (6'6" 251) and with power-read plays that pull guards into the hole, but they'll do it from sets that can also ask the linebackers to cover players like Dontre Wilson in space.
Hull is able to face that challenge due to two key traits, the first of which is the speed at which he plays the game. You can see his "download speed" and quickness in pads as he recognizes and blows up a Buckeye WR screen here:
Penn St's 2-read coverage scheme asks Hull to play out wide on a #3 receiver. He sees the Buckeye OL releasing upfield and explodes towards the receiver before they can lock on to him.
Hull also has unique quickness and strength that allows him to balance playing in space with his other job of grappling with OL. Ohio St made it a point to run their option schemes to the Lion nose tackle, which allowed them to release their OL downfield to target Hull at the 2nd level and prevent him from fitting his gap near the line of scrimmage:
Hull had to deal with free-releasing offensive tackles all day long and it didn't stop him from making 19 tackles or from helping hold the Buckeyes to only 3.8 yards per carry (and only 3.9 yards per pass). Hull is simply a difficult player to block.
"He was a high school wrestler," notes Shoop, "and if you ever try to get a good shot on a wrestler they can always squirm out of it. He has that wrestler's ability to contort his body or to play with leverage. He had an uncanny knack for beating blocks. He also had unique quickness to backdoor a block, which you wouldn't encourage, but he could do it."
Hull's combinations of quickness, football IQ, and functional strength led him to essentially serve as an eraser for the Penn St defense. Shoop's defensive scheme is one that combines a two-deep safety base coverage that is designed to keep the ball in front with an aggressive blend of fire zone blitzes that kill drives.
For both the 2-read system and the fire zones to work properly, Shoop needs a player on the 2nd level who can reliably make tackles and chase down plays to allow the defense to minimize the damage from bad calls or execution errors.
On Ohio St's 12th possession of the game, late in the 4th quarter nursing a 17-14 lead over the Nittany Lions, Hull made back to back eraser plays that allowed Hackenberg's late FG drive to send the game into overtime. First he cleaned up a power run that Ohio St fortuitously called against the grain of a fire zone blitz:
Despite getting a guard on a linebacker and a TE on a safety, the Buckeyes only get two yards from the call thanks to Hull's play on the backside, setting up a 3rd and 8. Then, on third down Barrett almost works some magic against the Lions playing their 2-read coverage:
Not only does Hull bring Barrett down before the first down marker but he does so after only a four yard gain despite his deep drop (Hull always gets great depth on his pass drops) which rules out a Buckeye attempt to go for it on 4th down and try to erase clock that Penn St would desperately need to tie the game.
Penn State's tradition survives
James Franklin was brought to Penn St to rebuild a program devastated by scandal and NCAA sanctions and abandoned by Paterno's successor Bill O'Brien in exchange for the NFL. This first season was almost a throwaway in terms of results because there was little chance of such a depleted roster competing against a Big 10 schedule.
But behind the efforts of senior defenders like Mike Hull, Penn State was able to protect their tradition as "Linebacker U," reach bowl eligibility, and maintain a legacy of defensive excellence for Franklins' wave of new recruits to learn from and emulate. The Big 10 better watch out for what this team can do when the roster is filled out with multiple, upperclassmen blue chippers eager to be the next star "backer" or "hero" at Penn St.