Coming into the season, Penn State's defensive coaches knew they had three solid starters at linebacker. But they also had a pretty good idea that Mike Hull would factor heavily as well.
Mike Hull has 24 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery this season.
"They told me, 'We might need you on third down situations,'" Hull said Wednesday, "so I just kind of embraced the role and started paying attention to teams' pass routes and it paid dividends."
The redshirt sophomore from Canonsburg, Pa., has given Penn State's defense a boost as a third-down specialist. At 6-feet, 228 pounds, Hull almost resembles a safety more than a linebacker in terms of his size and speed, giving Penn State more options in coverage than they would have with 235-pound starting middle linebacker Glenn Carson.
"I'm kind of a smaller guy and I've always kind of had that natural ability of getting in throwing lanes," Hull said.
Through the first six games of the season, Hull is tied for seventh on the team with 24 stops despite playing just a third of the defensive snaps or less. He's also earned some of those tackles on special teams, where he plays on all four return and coverage units.
Hull has learned to play all three linebacker positions, but most of his time has come in the middle. He and Carson have helped each other get an idea of what they're facing each week.
"Me and Glenn talk in between series all the time," Hull said, "saying, 'What's going on out there? Anything in particular they're doing?' and it definitely helps."
Playing on first and second down, Carson doesn't know if the run or the pass is coming. When it's third-and-long, Hull has a pretty good idea of what to expect.
"It's definitely somewhat of an advantage coming in on third downs because it's usually passing situations," Hull said. "But you prepare during the week for the run, too."
Iowa running back Mark Weisman, who has averaged 6.3 yards per carry and has eight of the Hawkeyes' 10 rushing scores this season, could miss Saturday's game with a right ankle sprain. Hull said the Nittany Lions are preparing as if Weisman will play but belief Iowa's running game will be tough to stop either way.
"All their backs have had success," Hull said. "He's just been a spark for them recently."
Penn State's defense has not only been better at stopping opponents on third down during the last few games than it was earlier in the season, but the Nittany Lions are allowing very few yards on first and second down as well. That's meant a lot of work for Hull. The Hawkeyes, who average 4.5 yards per carry and have 55 first downs rushing this season, hope to change that, which could be one of the keys to the game.
"On third and short it'll probably be Glenn," Hull said. "It depends on the situations and personnel groupings the offense has on the field."