UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's lack of playmakers on defense was evident all season, and especially so when linebacker Michael Mauti missed significant time with injuries.
Mauti will be back for the Outback Bowl, which not only will give the Nittany Lion defense a boost, it will provide a final chance to gauge just how good the redshirt sophomore could be over the next two seasons.
"I've just been rehabbing the last couple of weeks and practicing normally, so I'm good to go," Mauti said.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Michael Mauti missed time down the stretch with a dislocated shoulder.
The "Linebacker U" moniker simply doesn't fit this year's group, which was one of the weakest in years at PSU.
There's hope for the future in sophomore Gerald Hodges and freshman Khairi Fortt, but both of them still fall into the hype category more than actual production.
Chris Colasanti may have 102 tackles, but he's serviceable at best. While Nate Stupar looks good on some plays, he gets lost in the shuffle on too many others. Then there's Bani Gbadyu, a chronic underachiever who shouldn't even be starting.
Mauti is the best linebacker on the team, which he's been able to prove at times. There just haven't been enough of those times because of injuries.
The only knock on Mauti is he can't find a way to stay healthy.
He missed all of last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in preseason camp. A sprained ankle forced him to sit out the 33-13 debacle against Illinois at Beaver Stadium in week six, then he dislocated his right shoulder early on at Ohio State in week 10.
"It was like the first or second series, I think, and I just kind of hit the ground and my shoulder came out of the socket," Mauti said. "I played with it until halftime, and then it just got to the point where I couldn't really do anything more."
He sat out the second half against the Buckeyes, who scored 35 unanswered points in a 38-14 win, then missed the next week against Indiana and played only briefly in the regular-season finale.
"I was good to play against Michigan State," Mauti said. "I mean, it was really just coach's call about when I was going to go in, and I guess that was during reserve time or whatever."
Mauti has continued to rehab and is expected to be close to 100 percent against Florida in two weeks.
"That was the first time I've had any kind shoulder issue," he said. "I guess I know what it feels like for a shoulder to pop out of the socket, and it didn't feel good."
Mauti has 63 tackles (32 assisted), two sacks and five tackles for loss while healthy in 9 1/2 games. He would be the obvious candidate to take over at middle linebacker next season, giving him an opportunity to pile up big stats and possibly emerge as a dominant force.
But he's got to stay healthy if he's to reach his potential and become the next great Penn State linebacker.
"Injuries are part of the game," Mauti said. "I think it doesn't always pan out the way you wanted it to, but you've got to bounce back from injuries. That was really the only thing - the ankle and the shoulder - but there's nothing I can do about it. I've just got to come back and play and take the opportunity."
Penn State needs Mauti to be healthy and effective against Florida, which will try to use its speed against a linebacking unit that's been slow to react to the ball all season.
It will be good to see Mauti back if for no other reason than it's just fun to watch him play and attack the ball. The same can't be said for many - if any - other players on the Lions' defense this season.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or email@example.com.