UNIVERSITY PARK - Nate Stupar remembered the first time he walked into the Penn State locker room this spring and didn't see places for Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
"It's like, 'Where are they?'" Stupar said. "When you're young you rely on those guys, and now you rely on yourself and you're seeing what they saw before. You then remember that's why they said what they did."
Stupar, a junior who entered the fall as a leading candidate at outside linebacker, wasn't the only one needing a moment to figure out who's who at Linebacker U. this year. With Lee, Bowman and Hull all taken in the NFL draft, the Nittany Lions find themselves in the rare spot of replacing their entire starting unit and top three tacklers from 2009.
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Nate Stupar (34) is a junior linebacker projected on the outside this fall for the Nittany Lions.
The most experienced players are Bani Gbadyu, who started five games last year when Lee got hurt; Stupar, who started two when Bowman got hurt; and Chris Colasanti, who backed up Hull inside. There is also Michael Mauti, who missed all of 2009 with a torn right ACL after a promising freshman season in 2008, and Gerald Hodges, who played every game last season as a reserve.
The group, which also includes 2009 returnees Michael Yancich and Jamie Van Fleet, is deep enough that Joe Paterno had few worries that a solid unit would emerge for the Sept. 4 season opener vs. Youngstown State.
"Hopefully we've got kids who are going to make plays in the clutch because of ability, but we have four-five pretty good linebackers," Paterno said.
Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull have departed, so the Lions will have new starters at all three linebacker spots. The preseason depth chart:
OLBJr. Nate Stupar
MLBSr. Chris Colasanti
OLBSr. Bani Gbadyu
OLBSo. Michael Mauti
MLBSo. Michael Yancich
OLBSo. Gerald Hodges
Mauti's progress may be watched most closely. He entered the fall listed behind Stupar at one outside spot and said his knee was fine. Mauti, the son of former Nittany Lion and NFL player Rich Mauti, was perhaps best remembered in 2008 for causing a kickoff fumble that led to Penn State erasing a 10-point deficit to beat Michigan for the first time in 12 years.
But when Mauti got hurt in last year's preseason practice, it reminded Penn State fans of the similar injuries suffered in recent times by Lee and Paul Posluszny.
"Everything I'd done, I'd ask Sean questions all the time about feeling this or that," Mauti said. "But it's fine now. The only time I think about it is when I see the brace."
The preseason depth chart had Mauti behind Stupar at one outside spot, Gbadyu ahead of Hodges in the other and Colasanti ahead of Yancich inside.
Paterno sounded hopeful for big things out of Mauti, who has also experimented at inside linebacker in practice.
"I've got my fingers crossed he'll be fine, because if he is he's pretty darn good," Paterno said.
Gbadyu, a fifth-year senior from war-torn Liberia, also started two games in 2008.
Stupar raised his profile as a redshirt freshman in 2008 when he blocked two punts and interfered with another. He intercepted his first pass against Syracuse while starting for Bowman last year.
Colasanti looked to redshirt last season when he lost the middle linebacker job to Hull, until Bowman and Lee injuries damaged the depth chart. He ended last season with 18 tackles.
Not only are most of the players all candidates to play at this point, they are all candidates to be the "defensive center" that calls the plays in a leadership role. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said there wasn't anyone yet who'd taken charge of that the way Posluszny or Dan Connor did in the past, so mixing that up this season was an option again, especially as it would allow for some flexibility in substitutions.
Vanderlinden said the middle linebacker normally has that responsibility, but with all three starting spots open for the first time in his 10-year tenure, anything is possible.
"It's been both ways, but last year Navorro took over, then he got hurt, so Josh took over," Vanderlinden said. "Also, when everyone gets exposed to it in the course of a year, when you have the middle linebacker coming out in a nickel, someone else is there to do it."
Finding out who exactly will play regularly at linebacker, and where, is a bigger concern.
"In one word, the competition is extreme," Stupar said. "It's Linebacker U. You come here and you know there will be competition. It's like my brother [Jon, a tight end for the Buffalo Bills], they'd look at other guys to bring in without his discretion. You've always got to keep improving."
Ben Brigandi is sports editor for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.