After back-to-back losses, Penn State's struggling offense has fallen under intense scrutiny. That has led to the strong play of the Nittany Lion defense being somewhat overlooked.
But through six games, first-year coordinator Bob Shoop's unit has been outstanding. PSU leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's top five in scoring defense (15.2 ppg), rushing defense (60.8 ypg) and total defense (283.3 ypg).
While the entire unit has played well in the first half of the season, Shoop pointed to senior linebacker Mike Hull as the obvious MVP.
Mike Hull is the straw that stirs the drink, Shoop said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. Anybody who knows anything about college football should watch, and that guy has played as good a middle linebacker as there is in the country.
Later, Shoop added. He's played as well as any linebacker in the Big Ten and any linebacker , then he paused. I don't mean to disparage any other players. I don't want this to come across that way. He's played as well as any linebacker could possibly play within the framework of our scheme through the first six games.
The statistics support Shoop's argument. Hull ranks second in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation with 10.7 tackles per game. He led the Lions in stops in each of their first six outings, including a career-high 16 in a loss to Northwestern.
The numbers are even more impressive considering Penn State's opponents are averaging only 63 offensive plays per game. Minnesota's Damien Wilson leads the Big Ten in tackles with 11 per outing, but Gopher opponents are averaging 75 plays per game, so he's had far more opportunities.
Hull played outside linebacker the past three seasons, and was slowed by a knee injury in 2013. But when new head coach James Franklin, Shoop and linebackers coach Brent Pry came to PSU from Vanderbilt in January, they immediately moved Hull to middle linebacker. His cerebral approach to the game made him a good fit at the position, which calls the plays for the defense.
“All that guy does is make plays, whether it’s on an inside run, whether it’s a play on the perimeter, whether it’s running to the ball, whether it’s on special teams.”
He has an understanding of the defense as well as any player I've ever coached, Shoop said when asked to explain why Hull has flourished. Second, he's very confident out there. He has tremendous experience and knows the game plan inside and out, which enables him to play fast.
One thing Hull doesn't have is great size for the position. He is listed at 6-foot, 225 pounds. But he compensates with smarts, speed and strength -- Hull won a bench press competition against 348-pound offensive tackle Donovan Smith in the summer.
All right, he doesn't pass, necessarily, the dimensions test, the eye test, Shoop said. But all that guy does is make plays, whether it's on an inside run, whether it's a play on the perimeter, whether it's running to the ball, whether it's on special teams.
Hull's ability to do everything well has been another key to the success of the PSU defense, Shoop said. Though the Lions dropped an 18-13 game at Michigan last weekend, Hull in particular (and the defense in general) played well. He had a game-high 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and pass break-up.
He dominated the good category in Shoop's weekly the good, the bad and the ugly video review of the defense.
Each week I could show 10 clips of Mike Hull's plays, and sometimes it looks like the plays come to him, Shoop said. There's one play (vs. U-M), he had a tackle for loss on a run where he blitzes up the middle. There's another play where he blitzes off the edge and gets a sack. Then he checks another blitz into a different style of blitz and runs a twist, and almost intercepts a bubble screen.
Outside of moving Hull to middle linebacker, Shoop said the staff has not asked him to change his game to fit the defense. That's in line with the overall philosophy of, rather than recruit players to fit a scheme, we've tried to tailor our scheme to fit the players.
They obviously did not recruit Hull, but rather inherited him. Regardless, the player and scheme have been a perfect match so far, with Hull's 64 total tackles outpacing PSU's next two leaders (LB Nyeem Wartman with 26, S Ryan Keiser with 25) combined.
When you have a middle linebacker like Mike Hull, he's an eraser, Shoop said. He's made some plays -- whether it's on the perimeter, whether it's up the middle. He's played exceptionally well.