As we noted previously, our projected starters are listed in normal type. Others we expect to see first-team reps are listed in italics.
Regardless of what the coaches and players might say, this is one area where -- barring injuries or other issues -- there figures to be very little competition for starting jobs. Even with 2012 starters Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti off to the NFL, the first-teamers were firmly established early in the spring and did not change at all.
It starts with Glenn Carson, back for his third season as the middle or Mike 'backer. It will also mark his third season calling the defensive signals. Carson will be working with his third different defensive coordinator in as many years (fifth if you count the interim coaches at the end of 2012), but he has been smart enough to take it all in stride. If Carson has a downside, it is that he has never been particularly comfortable in coverage. He said he focused on improving that in the off-season and spring so he can remain on the field when the Lions go to a nickel defense.
Mike Hull moves from being a do-it-all reserve and special teams ace to the starting strong side or Sam linebacker. Head coach Bill O'Brien recently called the strong, athletic redshirt junior one of the five best players on the team. Like Carson, he is a slam dunk to start and -- with his big-play ability -- has a chance to be a breakout star in the Big Ten this season. He can rush the passer and is a good cover linebacker. Though not the biggest guy at 226 pounds, he can get the job done against the run because he is one of the strongest men on the team.
Speaking of big plays, redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman showed a flash for the dramatic early last season when he blocked a punt in the opener against Ohio. He seemed primed for serious work as a backup before being lost for the season to a knee injury. He was granted a redshirt and emerged in the spring as the starting weak side or Will 'backer.
At the conclusion of spring practice, new defensive coordinator John Butler said redshirt sophomore Ben Kline would have been in the mix at Will had he not been held out of contact due to a shoulder injury. We like Kline, especially on special teams. But he doesn't have Wartman's unique combination of size (6-foot-1, 236) and athletic ability. That said, we could see Kline being used to spell Wartman on occasion.
Provided they are healthy, we can't see Carson or Hull leaving the field when Penn State is in its base defense. It will be interesting to see what the staff does with the 'backers when it goes nickel, though. Hull is sure to be a part of that package, but Carson is no lock to be.
So the good news is that the starting lineup has been all but set for months now. The bad news is that a lack of depth and experience is such an issue that none of our projected starters has been seriously pushed so far.
WILL: Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline
MIKE: Glenn Carson
SAM: Mike Hull