Talk of Subs and Snubs for Penn State Defense

Nittany Lion tackling machine Hull more concerned with compensating for a key player lost to injury than being overlooked for the Butkus Award.

James Franklin on Mike Hull

The focus on Penn State's surpassing defense, keen throughout the Nittany Lions' season, increased markedly on Tuesday, with discussion of Mike Hull's heroics and Ryan Keiser's health.

Though certainly not in that order.

Coach James Franklin, a man pledged to avoiding any discussion of injuries, actually opened his weekly news conference by saying Keiser, a senior safety, broke a rib in practice last Thursday. That led to a bowel problem that required surgery at Hershey Medical Center, though Franklin, refuting earlier reports, emphasized that there is no infection.

“I just want to clear that up, because I know how the Penn State community supports one another,” Franklin said. “I want to make sure everyone understands clearly what's going on. … This has been approved by the family as a statement.”

Keiser missed Saturday's double-overtime loss to Ohio State, and PSU announced Monday that he is out for the season, meaning his career is over. (Ditto for running back Zach Zwinak, who injured his left foot or ankle on the opening kickoff against the Buckeyes.)

Franklin called Keiser “one of the nicest, most kind, most thoughtful kids I've been around,” but that was nothing compared to the praise he lavished on Hull, the Lions' middle linebacker and the Big Ten's leading tackler, with 83.

Franklin said Hull, who had a career-high 19 stops and an interception against the Buckeyes, is “as good as I've ever been around,” and that he often holds him up as “a model” for the Lions' younger players.

Hull, however, was not among the 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, announced Monday. That fazes him not a bit. As he said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, “I really don't play for awards or anything like that. It doesn't really mean anything to me. The only thing that matters is finishing out the season strong and helping our defense be successful every Saturday.”

And Franklin, for his part, said such awards are “about the team” -- that they come as the result of collective effort as much as individual feats.

The coach nonetheless began his segment on the Big Ten conference call by banging the drum for Hull some more.

“Mike Hull,” he said, “is as good as any linebacker in the country, college or NFL. I think he deserves a lot more attention than what he's getting.”

He again praised Hull for his work habits.

“Every rep in practice for him,” Franklin said, “is the Super Bowl.”

When asked specifically about the Butkus snub, Franklin said that isn't something that is discussed all that much in-house. At the same time, he added, “I've been around, and I'm just telling you, there are not too many guys like this out there.”

“I really don’t play for awards or anything like that. It doesn’t really mean anything to me. The only thing that matters is finishing out the season strong and helping our defense be successful every Saturday.”

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop recently called Hull “the straw that stirs the drink” and a guy who has played “as good a middle linebacker as there is in the country.”

There was no argument from weakside linebacker Nyeem Wartman.

“I don't think there's anyone playing better than Mike Hull,” Wartman said Tuesday, adding that those selecting the Butkus Award need to do “a little more research.”

Wartman went on to say that Hull's motor is “nonstop,” his football instincts “A-plus.” And Maryland coach Randy Edsall, whose team faces the Lions on Saturday at noon, called Hull “a tackling machine.”

“Points of that game, you feel like you're just out there reacting and playing, and not thinking at all,” said Hull, who has 46 stops in his last three games. “You're just really going with what the offense is showing you. I think over the last few games I've kind of felt like I've been in that zone.”

He acknowledged that Penn State's linebacker tradition is “really important” to him, as might be expected, since his dad and uncle both played the position at PSU in the '70s. At the same time, he said, “I really don't put myself in a category with a lot of those guys.”

The Terps (2-2 conference, 5-3 overall) are coming off a 52-7 loss to Wisconsin, and also gave up 52 three games ago, in a defeat to Ohio State. Their offense is a mixed bag -- it is just 88th among the nation's 125 major-college teams in yards (373.9) and 95th in rushing yardage (137.5) -- while their special teams have been excellent.

Cornerback William Likely leads the conference in punt-return average (16.3), and besides returning one for a score has also taken two of his Big Ten-best four interceptions the distance. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is tops in the conference in kickoff-return average (25.2), and kicker Brad Craddock has made all 12 of his field-goal attempts.

That has propped up the offense, a no-huddle, spread attack averaging a middling 31.6 points a game. It is led by quarterback C.J. Brown, who has completed 55.1 percent of his passes, for 1,316 yards and eight touchdowns, with six interceptions. He is also the team's top rusher, with 376 yards (3.8 per carry).

The Lions, 1-3 in the conference, 4-3 overall and losers of three straight, are third in the nation in rushing defense (83.4), seventh in total defense (284.7) and ninth in scoring defense (17.4). Besides Hull, four others had career-high tackle totals against Ohio State. That includes freshman Marcus Allen, who recorded 11 stops while making his first career start in place of Keiser.

“He has all the physical tools,” Hull said of Allen. “We saw that all year long from him. Really from the first day of camp we knew the kid could play. It was just a matter of him learning the defense.”

The larger concern is that while Hull makes the calls for the front seven, Keiser -- the “quarterback of the back four,” Franklin said -- did likewise for the secondary.

“Without him there,” Hull said, “some calls might have been missed or might get missed in the future that normally he would get me right on or he might help out on. That's the biggest way we're going to miss him.”

He said Wartman helped out with the calls Saturday, and that for the most part everybody communicated well.

“Our mindset every single game doesn't change,” Hull said. “We just want to go out there and make all the plays that we can make. We want to shoulder the load and just have a strong performance week after week, to help our team.”

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