UNIVERSITY PARK - Dan Connor graduated, Sean Lee is injured and one starter might be a walk-on.
''Linebacker U'' seems more like ''Linebacker Who'' this year as Penn State's signature unit will start the season without a signature player. As the fall progresses, one of two things should happen. Either:
1. The heralded linebacker recruits from recent years will start to make their own legacy and the group will remain a strength of the team, or ...
2. There will be a significant dropoff in production as the newcomers adjust to life without Connor, Lee and Paul Posluszny.
Outsiders like media and fans may be doubting what the new crop of linebackers can do, but the guy who knows the most about them isn't worried.
''I don't think we'll take a big hit,'' linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said. ''I really, honestly believe that.''
Rebuilding 'Linebacker U'
Penn State's projected starters at linebacker:
OLBTyrell Sales6-2, 233
MLBJosh Hull6-3, 231
OLBBani Gbadyu6-1, 221
OLBNavorro Bowman6-1, 230
MLBChris Colasanti6-2, 232
OLBJerome Hayes6-2, 246
Really? How is that possible given that Connor won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player last year and Lee wasn't far behind him.
''We've recruited well at the linebacker position, and we've got a lot of good, young football players,'' Vanderlinden said.
Connor will be tough enough to replace, but at least that loss was expected. Losing a player of Lee's caliber to a season-ending knee injury in April would appear to be devastating.
''It's going to hurt us,'' coach Joe Paterno said. ''But as I said to the squad, 'If you've got a good football team, somebody comes to the front.'''
One player whose lifelong dream has been coming to the front for Penn State is a walk-on who grew up 25 miles from the university. Redshirt junior Josh Hull, from Penns Valley High School, has a chance to become one of the rare walk-on linebackers to earn a starting job for the Lions.
''It's just a dream I've had ever since I was little,'' Hull said, ''so I'm living the dream right now.''
Lee had been moved from outside to inside linebacker before he was injured. Now Hull, who played in every game a year ago, is battling sophomore Chris Colasanti for the starting spot in the middle.
Colasanti saw limited action as a true freshman last year and is viewed by some as the next star linebacker at PSU.
''I think either one of them has a real shot at the job,'' Vanderlinden said.
Hull knew when he arrived at Penn State he wasn't going to settle for just being a walk-on.
''I didn't come into the situation I'm in expecting not to succeed,'' he said. ''I chose Penn State with the intentions of being a starter.''
Hull, who's 6-foot-3, has bulked up since arriving on campus, going from 204 in high school to 231.
''He's an athlete, and he's unbelievably consistent,'' said Lee, who's serving as sort of an extra coach while he rehabs his knee. ''He's a guy that doesn't make mistakes.''
Hull's competition for the starting spot, Colasanti, is a heralded 6-2, 232-pound prospect from Michigan who twice earned first-team all-state honors. He's built like a brick wall and was one of only two true freshmen who saw action for PSU last season (offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski was the other).
Hull's experience and upperclassman status may help him earn the starting nod to begin the season, but Colasanti should get a lot of playing time and could take over the job as the year progresses.
''I feel like I have a lot of work to do,'' Colasanti said. ''I feel like I'm making good strides, but I have to sharpen up and correct my mistakes.''
Colasanti said he's worked a lot on stopping the run but admitted he needs work on the pass-run read. He's still in the fine-tuning process of getting his footwork down, tackling better and improving his overall game.
''He's a hard-nosed kid, he works awful hard at it, he's extremely prideful and he likes to play,'' defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said.
The middle linebacker position may be up for grabs, but the two outside spots appear to be set. Senior Tyrell Sales, who started 12 games last season, and redshirt sophomore Bani Gbadyu are the frontrunners, bringing a mix of experience and raw talent to the positions.
Sales will be counted on as one of the defensive leaders with Lee out.
''Ty is a natural leader anyway,'' Vanderlinden said. ''He really has always been a guy that other guys kind of responded to.''
Sales, who's 6-2, 233 pounds, finished sixth on the Lions with 50 tackles last season.
''He's the guy that's played the most, he's been in a lot of games, he's someone who now we're going to rely on more,'' Bradley said.
Paterno singled out Sales when talking about players who will have to step to the forefront in Lee's absence.
''That's the way I feel about a kid like Tyrell Sales, who has really hung in the back,'' Paterno said. ''All of a sudden he's a real gung-ho guy. He had taken a back seat to Lee.''
Gbadyu may not have to take a back seat to anyone much longer as he'll get his chance to showcase his athletic skills. The 6-1, 221-pounder has spent a lot of time Learning from Lee, whom he calls his ''big brother.''
''Ever since I came here, he just put me underneath his wing,'' Gbadyu said of Lee. ''Anything I needed, anything, he was there for me.''
Gbadyu played in all 13 games last season, primarily on special teams early before getting in more at linebacker later on.
Bradley said Gbadyu made ''marked improvement, especially mentally,'' in the spring and added, ''I see him becoming more of a student of the game.''
Linebacker depth should come from Navorro Bowman, who's back with the team after enduring off-the-field legal problems, and Jerome Hayes, who tore his right ACL in week seven last season. Hayes also may be used as a stand-up defensive end.
Redshirt freshman Nate Stupar from State College Area High School also may be in the mix.
Cory Giger is at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.