UNIVERSITY PARK - The days of Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti beating a sledge hammer against a truck tire, as sweat dripped down his face and arms, are nearly over. The Nittany Lions senior used that exercise as one of many he performed during his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he sustained last September.
This time around, Mauti is ready to go.
And he needs to be.
Mauti and fellow senior linebacker Gerald Hodges, both on the Butkus Award watch list, figure to be forces on a defense that has some work ahead of it. Indeed, in this season of change - a new coaching staff, a new outlook, a new era at Beaver Stadium - the Nittany Lions will need absolutely all they can get from their seasoned leaders.
"All we can focus on is what we're focusing on, and that's coming to work every day, ignoring everything that's going on outside," Mauti said. "Whether it's good or bad."
And it's Mauti and Hodges who will have to be mentors, on and off the field, especially considering they will flank a middle linebacker who has yet to be named. Juniors Glenn Carson and Khairi Fortt are challenging for that final starting spot.
"We have so many great players," Hodges said. "We have six or seven linebackers that I feel like can play at any Division I school. ... They work so hard, they give it all they got and it motivates me."
Knowing who he'd have playing around him was a big reason why Hodges opted to stay for his senior season. After requesting an evaluation from the NFL, the results were held onto by his father and remain unknown to the linebacker. Hodges' 106 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season were a bright spot for a defense that had to hold up more than its share of the bargain as a sputtering offense ranked 95th in the nation en route to a 9-4 season.
But he and Mauti insist this year it'll be different. Starting at the top with coach Bill O'Brien, down to the defensive standouts, they've taken notice of how the new leader has held the team together as off-the-field controversy continues to swirl. The football field remains a sanctuary for the players and coaches who are unsure what type of action, if any the NCAA will take amid the abuse scandal.
"All the guys are just putting on the blinders and keep going to work every day," Mauti said. "[O'Brien's] been great for this whole process."
"People took shots before this even happened," he said. "If I was to get mad at everybody that took a shot at Penn State. ... I just go out here, play football and do what I have to do."
On paper, the linebackers should do just fine. But it's important to keep in mind that Mauti has had a tear in each knee during his career, and his durability will continue to be questioned. And he's not the only one with health concerns.
Fortt, who had surgery in April due to subluxation in his right knee, missed the spring game and wasn't a full participant at the Nittany Lions' weightlifting charity event last week. He should be ready once camp opens on Aug. 6.
Fortt played in every game last season, while Carson held onto the starting spot for 12 games. Carson's speed was one of the biggest knocks against him last season while Fortt's athleticism kept him in the mix.
This summer, the unit spent time trying to become more explosive by working with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Much like Mauti taking swings at the tire, the players used the new Olympic style lifts Fitzgerald implemented to improve upon this weakness. Hodges said the results already show.
Take Hodges' backup, redshirt sophomore Mike Hull, for example. Hodges dubbed the 6-foot, 213-pound Hull as "one of the strongest players on the team" and said since working with Fitzgerald, Hull "turned into an ox." O'Brien praised Hull's blitzing abilities earlier in the summer, as well. Hull, along with Mauti's backup Ben Kline, will provide plenty of depth.
There is some level of comfort, as well, with the linebackers because position coach Ron Vanderlinden is one of two holdovers from last year's staff. Larry Johnson continues working with the Penn State defensive linemen.
While starting spots on the outside might not be up for grabs, Hodges was quick to add that every person in the unit will contribute. They have to this season ... or else.
"The coaches need everyone to be a leader," Hodges said. "Everybody on the team is a leader in their own way and I'm excited about that. You don't have to worry about always having to be the person to be the leader.
"Every person on this team is a leader in their own way."
It's a good year for that.