UNIVERSITY PARK - Two days after Penn State was hit with unprecedented sanctions and fines by the NCAA's Mark Emmert, about 30 players met with the media to defend the school and their program and send a message that they would continue to stick together.
The leaders of that group were redshirt senior linebacker Michael Mauti and senior fullback Michael Zordich, sons of former Penn State players who played under Joe Paterno. Mauti and Zordich talked passionately about their program and became instant favorites for Penn State fans and alumni.
"Somebody needed to stick up for our team and our university," Mauti said on media day, "because nobody else was really saying anything in the media. We couldn't sit back and let people talk about us the way that they were talking about us. It was just kind of something that needed to be done."
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Glenn Carson (40) — who had 74 tackles last season — returns with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges to spearhead a strong group of Nittany Lion linebackers.
"It's our responsibility to hold this team together, hold this university together because we're in a position to do that. It's something we put on our backs, and that's okay because we understand how important it is to so many people."
For some, that day might have been the first time they've heard from Mauti, the son of Rich Mauti, who played for New Orleans and Washington in the NFL. His teammates at linebacker, however, had heard that passion before.
"I wasn't surprised," senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said. "Mauti and a couple other guys are very outspoken, and if they've got something they want to get off their chest, they're going to get it off their chest. That's why I respect those guys so much. They don't hold anything back."
"Mauti is a great leader," junior linebacker Glenn Carson said. "When all of this stuff came down, he felt like he needed to step up and be heard. That's exactly what he did, and that's what great leaders do. It's been a big help for us to get over this stuff."
Mauti, who graduated in December and is working on a second degree in labor and employment relations, is healthy after seeing his 2011 season cut short when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the fourth game of the season against Eastern Michigan. He tore his right ACL in the 2009 preseason camp. He finished the 2011 season with 21 tackles, 13 of which came against Alabama.
"I'm just excited to be back out there running around and screaming," Mauti said. "It's been a lot of fun so far. I'm just looking forward to every day. I'm having a blast out there. I just want to prove I can stay on the field for 12 games, stay healthy and stay productive."
It stands to reason that the Lions have a right to play with a lot of anger this season. Some might say they have a collective chip on their shoulder.
"Of course we do," Mauti said. "There's a lot of people who want to see how we'll respond to what people tried to do to our program, but we're not going to let that happen."
"With all the things that did happen, that didn't do anything but make the guys nastier," Hodges said. "These guys are really itching to get on the field. We want to show people that you can knock us down, but we're going to keep getting up. I wouldn't say we have a chip on our shoulder, but we definitely have something to play for."
One of the changes under new coach Bill O'Brien is players are allowed to have facial hair and long hair. Mauti, with his flowing locks, says he has the best hair on the team, even better than Zordich. Not all of the players have great hair, but they all seem to have beards, especially among the linebackers.
"I like the facial hair," Hodges said. "It makes everybody look gritty. When we didn't have the facial hair, it made everybody look like little kids out there. You've got guys with the beards now, and they look like real nasty football players."
Much is expected of Hodges, who was named to the first-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and espn.com last season after leading the team in tackles with 106 to go with his 4 sacks. Carson, who will play in the middle, made 74 tackles, including 11 against Alabama and Ohio State.
Looks like another pretty good unit at Linebacker U.
"I think we mesh really well," Carson said of the unit. "I think we have very similar playing styles in the sense that we're going to play from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. I think we all love the game and we all love to hit and run around and make plays. I'm really excited for the defense. I think the sky is the limit for us, and we can be as good as want to be."
How much has the defensive scheme changed going from Tom Bradley to new defensive coordinator Ted Roof?
"It's changed a lot," Carson said. "I think we're going to be much more unpredictable, and teams are going to have a hard time knowing what defense we're in. We're going to be lined up in something, and we can be playing something else."
"We're going to be mixing it up a lot," Mauti said. "But at the same time, we're going to be doings that made Penn State great. We're going to be good tacklers, hard hitters and tough-nosed players. I'm really looking forward to it."
The Lions are looking forward to unleashing that new scheme and proving they can still play amid controversy and nine transfers. They open Sept. 1 at home against Ohio University.
"That first game is right around the corner," Hodges said. "Once everything happened, we were like 'All right, that's out of the way. Let's go play football now.' "
Many in the media the sanctions and scholarship restrictions would cripple the Lions and send them into a losing pattern for many years. Mauti is hoping he and his teammates can prove the experts wrong.
"I hate losing more than I like winning sometimes," Mauti said. "If you're not a competitor, then you shouldn't be playing the game. So, winning is everything."
Mauti paused briefly, remembering the criticisms of Penn State being a football factory and winning at all costs, and added, "Don't take me out of context there," as a group of reporters laughed. "This is an academic institution, and we graduate over 77 percent of our players. I'll continue if you want me to."
No need. Another statement heard loud and clear.