STATE COLLEGE —
Michael Mauti seemed antsy the way he leaned back and forth in his chair, fidgeted with his fingers and checked his phone.
And that was Mauti just having a conversation in a classroom. Now imagine the taut, 232-pound package of boundless energy wearing shoulder pads and a helmet and sporting a glare as if he were a bull ready to pounce on a matador.
Yup, Penn State’s star linebacker is ready to go for Saturday night’s showdown with No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten).
“To me, it’s either you’re all in or ... I don’t really see any other way,” Mauti said this week. “They say, ‘Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. To me you don’t get low – you just stay high.”
For added emphasis, Mauti motioned his hand above his head. It was only fitting for one of the most respected leaders on a defense that’s getting better each week.
Tackle Jordan Hill leads the push up front for the Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-0). End Deion Barnes has emerged as a pass-rushing threat as a freshman. The secondary is playing better following early-season trouble on third downs.
But the beating heart of this defense lies at outside linebacker, where Mauti and fellow senior Gerald Hodges form one of the top one-two punches in the country.
The “Linebacker U.” reputation is in good hands.
“I wish I had a motor like them,” Hill said about Mauti and Hodges. “Even when they’re talking, they’re going full speed.”
Converted from safety his freshman year, Hodges’ 54 tackles is second on the team – to Mauti’s 65, of course. And yes, they do keep track of stats in a friendly competition.
They’re each semifinalists for the Butkus Award given annually to the best collegiate linebacker. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, in his first year in Happy Valley, tweaked Penn State’s already-solid schemes to add more looks and play with more aggression.
“Each and every game, and every practice, we motivate each other,” Hodges said. “It’s not like he tells me his stats, and I get mad.”
Indeed, Hodges describes himself as the calmer of the two, at least off the field. On the field, Mauti and Hodges play like they could go 2-on-11 against the offense.
“On the field, we’re basically the same exact person. The same exact intensity,” Hodges said. “But off the field, Mauti can’t sit still ... He always has to be moving around.”
Not so fast, Gerald. Mauti’s got a good description of his fellow linebacker, too, by virtue of the pregame routine last week before Penn State’s 38-14 thrashing of Iowa.
The locker room in Iowa City was virtually silent except for one voice. Hodges, with his headphones on while preparing for the game, singing a rap song.
“He describes me as hyperactive? I would call him ‘sporadic,”’ Mauti said, laughing. “On the field, I mean he plays with the same energy, but then he gets in his own world. He’s in ‘Gerald-world,’ when he puts on his headphones and it’s silent in the locker room.”
Whatever the pregame ritual, the play of Mauti and Hodges harkens of other recent dynamic Penn State linebacker duos.
In 2005 and 2006, Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor hounded opposing running backs. In 2009, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman wreaked havoc together all over the field.
Mauti could have joined Lee and Bowman in the middle that season had he not gone down with a season-ending injury to his right knee. He was playing well last season until another season-ending injury, this time to his left knee in Week 4.
“I recruited him hard at Florida. Loved him as a high school athlete,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s a tough guy. He’s a leader. ... He’s playing his tail off after his knee injury.”
For all that intensity on the field, though, Mauti is “really kind of meek and mild-mannered” off the field, said his father, Rich Mauti, who also played for Penn State.
“Like many football players, when you hit that switch when you get down to the field, he’s an extremely emotional player,” the elder Mauti said recently. “In the real world, he fits in perfectly ... he’d rather be behind the scenes than in front, believe it or not.”
But front and center is exactly where Mauti stood in late July, days after the NCAA levied its strict sanctions on Penn State for how the school handled the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The punishment included a four-year postseason, meaning Mauti and the other seniors wouldn’t be able to finish their college careers at a bowl game.
The NCAA also allowed current players – Mauti included – to seek immediate transfers to other schools without having to sit out a year. The rumor mill spun out of control. Would Penn State even have a team to field in 2012?
Mauti and running back Michael Zordich stepped up. Surrounded by about two dozen players at a hastily-called news conference, Mauti and Zordich made an impassioned statement that they were staying in Happy Valley. Eventually, most other players followed suit, though the Nittany Lions did lose about 10 key players including tailback Silas Redd and kicker-punter Anthony Fera.
Mauti also wasn’t shy about criticizing Illinois coach Tim Beckman for actively recruiting Penn State players over the summer. Mauti backed up his words with a star turn in last month’s 35-7 rout of the Illini with six tackles and two interceptions, including a 99-yarder that set a school record.
Just five more games to go for Mauti to put on his blue-and-white uniform, starting with Saturday’s tilt against the unbeaten Buckeyes. The senior in part credits Lee, now with the Dallas Cowboys, with instilling his every-second-counts intensity.
“Once you start feeling the clock, you’ve got less and less time,” Mauti said. “You’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got.”