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April 26, 2011Linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are ready for their close-ups.
Each missed time due to injury during the 2010 season and had to compete for playing time amongst a crowded - and injury-ridden - linebacker rotation.
Mauti played in 11 games and started seven, but actually missed the majority of the Ohio State game thanks to a dislocated shoulder. In the process, he still finished with 67 tackles on the season, fifth best on the team, and was hitting his stride with 10 and 11 tackles in the Michigan and Northwestern games, respectively, leading up to his injury against the Buckeyes.
Meanwhile, Hodges had his own set of challenges to overcome, seeing serious playing time at linebacker for the first time in his young career, but going down with a broken leg on the opening kickoff against Alabama the second week of the season. The injury forced him out until the Nittany Lions returned from the bye week against Minnesota.
Upon his return, however, Hodges steadily increased his numbers - despite missing action against Northwestern - until he made a season-high six tackles against Florida in the Outback Bowl.
Since the Lions' New Year's Day loss to the Gators, Mauti has moved inside to take over for Chris Colasanti while Hodges has starting role ownership at the outside linebacker spot once occupied by Bani Gbadyu.
By all accounts, both Mauti and Hodges have stepped to the front this spring and could be setting themselves up for very big seasons in 2011. In the second part of our exclusive interview with Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, we examine the emergences of Mauti and Hodges this spring.
BWI: Versatility is something you always look for. You say you like guys that can run and that are versatile.
Vanderlinden: When people ask me what I'm looking for in a linebacker, I think a really good player should be able to play all three spots. Tough enough to be inside, athletic enough and maneuverable enough to play outside.
Finding that combination isn't always easy, but when you compare to Paul and Dan and Sean, all three of those guys were athletic enough to play outside and did, and tough enough to play inside and did. So, that's really the hybrid in today's football.
You're looking for the hybrid of part safety, part linebacker. A safety who can play in space or a linebacker who can play in space, and yet, when you're playing the real physical football teams, they've gotta be tough enough to take on blocks, get off blockers and be a physical tackler. So, that kind of was what I would describe the modern linebacker to be. A hybrid.
BWI: I assume specifically Michael Mauti fits a lot of those molds?
Vanderlinden: Mike has made a lot of progress in becoming... He always had the ability but needed to become more consistent when he was playing in between the tackles.
BWI: Obviously he had the knee injury a couple years ago when it looked like he would compete with Josh Hull for the starting spot at inside linebacker. Has he come full circle from where he was before the injury?
Vanderlinden: No, I don't think so. He definitely would have competed with Josh.
(Who is an NFL linebacker.) Correct. It's funny how those things - one man's misfortune turned out to be Josh's...
(At media day before the injury, you said he was the fastest linebacker you had and would compete for the starting job)... Oh yeah, he would have. There's no question. He would have played a lot.
But, I would say after this spring, he's the best he's ever been. Not even close. He had a really good spring and he really improved his game between the tackles. He's always been good in space, but he really got better between the tackles, which I was really pleased to see.
BWI: Can you elaborate on his improvements between the tackles? He's better at shedding blockers?
Vanderlinden: He's better at taking on blockers and shedding them and he's a better tackler.
BWI: In getting to know Mike, he's also shown a unique personality and attitude on the field. He's got a screw loose, in the best sense.
Vanderlinden: Here's what I think Mike is evolving into... He's always had intensity. He's got a great fire burning inside of him. But, now he's learning to be a thinking man's linebacker too, and I think in some ways, he needed to harness that energy a little bit. I think he's really doing that.
BWI: Are you willing to throw out some superlatives for Mike? (No, I won't.) Can he be an All-Big Ten player?
Vanderlinden: I'm really pleased with where he's at and the progress he's made. I think he's got a lot of abilities and a big upside.
BWI: By all accounts, Gerald Hodges seems to be breaking out this spring.
Vanderlinden: Yeah, I think that's a good way to say it. I think Gerald has progressed to a point where he's really understood the need to do little things well all the time. He's caught up to the game in terms of the physical part of the game - taking out blockers, getting off blockers, understanding he has to fit within the framework of the defense every play.
Sometimes you look great and sometimes the ball goes through. To the casual observer, you're not really sure why, but it's typically because a guy either got blocked or he got out of position. So, I think Gerald has made tremendous progress with his game in becoming a more disciplined football player.
BWI: You talked earlier about the hybrid linebacker. Is Gerald Hodges a good example of that?
Vanderlinden: I think that Gerald and Mike Mauti and Michael Hull and Khairi Fortt and Nate Stupar all would fit that category of having that kind of ability to play in space. Now, not all of them are ready to play inside consistently, but they have the ability to play in space.
BWI: Gerald obviously had the injury last year. What kind of a setback was that to him?
Vanderlinden: It was a definite setback. It took him five weeks and slowed his progress. I'm not sure he would tell you this, but I think it gave him a chance to step back and observe and sometimes that is a real valuable component to a player's development where they're able to watch it and see all of the things you might be coaching from a different vantage point. Instead of being in the middle of it, they're watching it unfold.
I think in Gerald's case, he came back much more mentally aware than when he left when he got hurt in the first play of the second game. So, there was a decision, should we redshirt him or should we play him? I'm glad we played him because him playing the last half of last season really helped him fast-forward into this spring. He got a lot better as the season went on. I think he played his best game against Florida.
BWI: He seems to be a kid that really benefits from the spring sessions and develops then. Does he utilize the learning opportunities more-so than other guys might?
Vanderlinden: I would like to think all of them do. I think one of my strengths is getting them to believe and buy into what we're doing and why we're doing it and the fundamentals that are going to help them be really good players.
I think it took Gerald a little while to buy into that, to trust me that what I was teaching him and trying to change him... because he had never really been coached before, particularly at linebacker. And, to get him to buy into doing the little things well all the time, I think he's at a good place with that now. I think watching last fall helped him even get into a better place of, 'OK. I've got it. I see it. I see what the guy is talking about.'
BWI: Building on that, is this where you are most effective as a coach?
Vanderlinden: Oh, I don't know. We needed to improve. We needed to get better as a unit and so, there's a new challenge. New players, new talent. Can you get them ready? That's the job we all have as coaches. I think all of us do the same thing. We're all trying to make our guys better.