Penn State Football: Expect a Heated Competition at Linebacker This Spring

Tim TolleyContributor IMarch 5, 2014

Nov 30, 2013; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon (25) rushes for a first down as Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Brandon Bell (26) and Mike Hull (43) make the stop at Camp Randall Stadium. Penn State defeated Wisconsin 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Much like two years ago when Bill O'Brien took over the helm at Penn State, the Nittany Lions find themselves in a state of transition.

Unlike last time, though, every position coach has been changed along with the head coach.

Following the departure of Ron Vanderlinden, for the first time in a decade Linebacker U will have a new person coaching its linebackers. Compounding that fact is that new linebacker coach, Brent Pry, will have his hands full while filling out the depth chart at the team's most famous position.

The last two seasons have seen senior leaders Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges depart for the NFL while three-year starter Glenn Carson is working toward the same future.

While Pry's cupboard is hardly bare, there is some organizing to be done in the pantry.

Senior outside backer Mike Hull is the one known commodity Pry has going into this spring. He is already penciled in as a starter and may see some snaps at the "star" position—a linebacker/safety hybrid—because of his speed.

Unfortunately, no one is certain that the undersized Hull can hold up over a full season while playing with the intensity that he does. In 2013, Hull played in just 10 games and was limited in several of them.

Penn State's Returning Linebackers
TacklesTFLSacksForced Fumbles
Mike Hull784.511
Nyeem Wartman322.511
Brandon Bell24--1
Ben Kline181.51-
Gary Wooten6---

If optimism can win out and Hull manages to play a full season, that leaves a group of young, athletic, unproven players to battle for the other two spots.

While Hull's 78 tackles didn't set the world on fire, he recorded more than the next three returning linebackers did, combined.

Heading into spring, the only candidate who seems pigeonholed into one position is Gary Wooten, as he will likely be limited to the middle spot.

Sophomore Brandon Bell could start opposite of Mike Hull or back him up, while Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman could find themselves at any position, as a starter or a backup. 

Don't be surprised to see them multiple times on the depth chart, backing up Hull while starting at another position.

Wartman made a splash in his first career game with Penn State, blocking a punt against Ohio. Shortly after, he suffered a lingering knee injury that would cost him most of his freshman season and afford him a redshirt season.

Last year, he showed flashes of greatness while indecisiveness cost him at times, most notably in the Ohio State game when he often acted as a quarterback spy.

Wartman could benefit from playing in the middle, covering sideline to sideline in a "read and react" role, but he has the speed to play outside as well.

Ben Kline has plenty of size to step into the middle linebacker role, but he is dealing with a lingering shoulder injury that may cost him snaps this spring. Rather than backing up Wartman, Kline may be slid outside in an attempt to get the best three players on the field.

The wild card of the unit this spring is Brandon Bell. Depth issues caused Bell to be thrown into the fire earlier than he probably should have been, and the young freshman looked the part. By the end of the season, however, Bell looked more comfortable and had six tackles in each of the last two games against Nebraska and Wisconsin.

If Kline has to miss extended time, Bell could be the favorite to start outside of Wartman. Or, Wooten could be granted the nod in the middle with Bell backing up both Wartman and Hull.

Unlike last year, Penn State should have three really good starters and at least three more-than-competent backups heading into the summer.

Where the six of them will be slotted after April is anybody's guess.