Josh Hull, one of the most confident young men you will ever meet, will be starting at linebacker for Penn State this season.
He guaranteed it.
"I'm 100 percent confident enough in my talent that I'm going to be on the field playing linebacker this year at one of the three spots," Hull said. "Where at? I have no idea yet. If it's inside, that's great. If it's outside, I'm looking forward to that, too."
Mirror file photo
Linebacker Josh Hull received criticism early last season but played better near the end of the year.
The Nittany Lions' other two linebackers, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, should be in the running for All-America honors. Hull is so confident in himself that, when asked about his teammates' All-America hopes, he made sure to point out one thing.
"You've got to throw me in that mix, too," he said. "I want to be better than the guy playing beside me."
Those comments may sound silly to some Penn State fans who still believe Hull shouldn't even be on the field. Sophomore Michael Mauti should be the starter, Hull's critics contend, and even if Hull is starting at the beginning of the season, there's a feeling among many that he will be replaced by Mauti at some point.
Comprehensive season preview
Check the link below for all eight parts of Cory Giger's "Lining up with the Lions" series previewing all of the units on this year's team. It's everything you need to know about the squad, all in one place.
The speculation, doubts and criticism are nothing new for Hull. The senior dealt with them for much of last season, getting ripped by fans and media alike after a slow start.
Some of the criticism was fair, some was not. Hull did not play well early on - looking slow afoot, missing tackles and getting run over a couple of times by bigger backs - and there was a feeling he might cost the team a big game at some point.
Then something happened. Beginning week six at Purdue, when he had a career-high 11 tackles, Hull improved gradually and silenced many critics.
A funny scene played out in the press box at Purdue. The criticism of Hull had heated up going into the game, and on the third play that afternoon, the linebacker snuck through the line of scrimmage and tackled Kory Sheets for a 2-yard loss.
A split second after the play, Penn State sports information director Jeff Nelson - a soft-spoken, serious, professional man - uncharacteristically and sarcastically blurted out to the entire PSU press corps, "Did Josh Hull make that tackle?"
Secretly, I will predict, the media members on hand were all rooting for Hull and did not enjoy having to criticize him. He's a brilliant young man with a great GPA in - are you ready for this? - environmental systems engineering. He's also a walk-on who busted his tail to impress the coaches and earn a starting job.
He's the kind of kid we all would want for a son.
"He's just a phenomenal young man," Hull's dad, Jeffrey, said. "He's my son, but he's a good person all around."
The elder Hull said he's "a little upset with the writers that criticized" his son. He went on to add, "I understand all of the writers never experienced what he's doing, never played the game or whatever. But it's your job to write about it. I understand that."
The timing of the elevated criticism and Hull's performance at Purdue seemed to prove that the kid motivated himself by all the negativity. His father agreed.
"I think it did him a favor in the long run because it motivated him a little bit," Jeffrey Hull said. "He never got down on himself, always kept working hard, went to practice, kept his head up, kept getting better and better every game. Then all of a sudden he started getting better, and yunz guys stopped writing about him. So what does that say for a reporter?"
True, there were nowhere near as many positive stories written about Hull the second half of last year as there were negative ones early on. He deserved better.
Hull started all 13 games, finished second on the team with 75 tackles and had a game-high nine tackles in the Rose Bowl against USC.
Still, as we approach the 2009 campaign, Hull's improvement late last season seems to have been largely forgotten. Some of that has less to do with him and more to do with Mauti's talent and potential. Mauti played in every game as a redshirt freshman and had 26 tackles.
Hull's father said his son told him, "It will make me better, and it will make Michael Mauti better trying to beat each other out in practice, that we push each other." Hull's dad also said his son noted, "I look forward to the challenge."
"People are always going to wonder about me," Hull said. "I came in as an under-recruited kid, a walk-on. I'm not going to let that bother me; I never have. The first day I stepped on campus to the last day, I'm never going to let that get under my skin.
"I'm just going to continue to go out every week and prove to these people that I belong here. Whether or not I [win] their minds over, it doesn't matter to me. As long as I'm doing my best and doing what I need to do on the field, that's fine."
Hull's status may depend largely on what the coaching staff decides to do with Lee. If Lee is moved to middle linebacker, then the quicker Mauti seems better suited for an outside spot than Hull.
Hull's intelligence and ability to call the formations make him a good fit for the middle. He's also an upperclassman who is well-liked and respected by Joe Paterno, so all that plays in his favor as far as winning a starting job.
"It's going to be a lot different for me [this season]," Hull said. "I think I started out a little too slow [last year], and toward the end I really picked it up.
"I want to start this season off where I left off last season. If I get that quick start, I think it's going to be smooth sailing for me."
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.