Truth be told, Mike Hull is not a very good video-game player, and he doesn’t know how to set up voicemail on his cellphone.
But he is a pretty darn good linebacker, and that trumps whatever technological deficiences he may have.
“If you want to get to your goal, you have to be out there working,” said his father, Tom Hull, explaining that instead of trying to master “Grand Theft Auto” or “Guitar Hero,” Mike spent most of his childhood and youth outdoors, either fishing or playing football.
That mentality is working out nicely for the fifth-year senior, who is entering his final season at Penn State as one of the Lions’ most highly respected players both regionally and nationally. Mike was named to the Butkus Award Preseason Watch List, and he was the only Nittany Lion selected preseason first-team All-Big Ten by Athlon Sports and Lindy’s.
On Wednesday, the Canon-McMillan High School graduate also was voted one of two defensive co-captains by his teammates and coaching staff.
“I’ve been really, really, really impressed with Mike, I really have,” said first-year head coach James Franklin. “He’s a guy who not only does he have the physical tools in terms of running and changing direction and is strong, but he processes information fast as well.
“I mean, you watch the tape, and the offense is running a counter play, and they start going this way, and everybody on the defense takes three steps in that direction. Hull takes two and is already moving in the other direction.”
Mike comes by some of his talent naturally, and is blazing a similar path as his father, who helped establish Penn State as Linebacker U. in the early 1970s.
During the three years (1971-73) that Tom lettered at Penn State, he was instrumental in helping the Lions compile a cumulative 33-3 record, including a perfect 12-0 season his senior year that was punctuated by a 16-9 win over LSU in the Orange Bowl.
One of his most memorable games, he said, was when he started at inside linebacker against Texas in the Cotton Bowl his sophomore year. The Lions were down 6-3 at halftime, but came back in the second half to win 30-6 and complete an 11-1 season.
Among Tom’s teammates during his career were Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti. Harris and Mitchell were seniors when Tom was a sophomore. “At that point,” Tom joked, “we were used as blocking dummies. We’d practice all year just to play Pitt and West Virginia.”
Tom, whose brother John also played at Penn State (1970-71), was drafted in the 12th round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, but a leg whip on the second play of the season forced him to sit out four weeks and slowed him down the rest of the season. He played for the Green Bay Packers in 1975, but was released before the start of the ’76 season.
By the time he signed with the Buffalo Bills, he was out of football for three years, and “it caught up with me,” Tom said.
Born to be a Lion
Tom eventually returned to Pennsylvania, and when Mike was 5 years old, father and son began attending Penn State football games. It didn’t take long for Mike to become hooked.
Tom never pressured Mike to choose Penn State, telling him, “You’ve got to make your own decision.” But to Mike, the decision was so easy that he committed to the Lions during his junior year.
“I just kind of love Penn State,” he said. “I’ve been here all my life, in and out of games. I looked at Ohio State, but I didn’t feel like it was the right place for me. It’s hard to turn down Penn State. Everyone who comes here is a great guy. It takes a special type of player to play here.”
Tom may not have influenced Mike’s college choice, but he has been a major influence on his son’s life in many other ways.
“I can remember going outside in the yard and playing football with him,” Mike said. “He taught me just about everything about playing linebacker growing up.
“As a father, you couldn’t ask for a better role model. He’s just a stand-up guy. He always stands for the right thing. He’s going to make the right decision every time.”
Apparently, Mike inherited his father’s integrity as well as his talent.
When the NCAA handed down its unprecedented sanctions against Penn State’s football program three years ago following the child sex abuse scandal involving Washington native Jerry Sandusky, Mike considered transferring. But he opted to stay, telling the Observer-Reporter at the time, “I’m a Penn State guy at heart.”
Even as the coaching carousel continued to revolve, Mike remained steadfast in his loyalty to his teammates and the football program.
“When everyone made the decision to stay, it was like we’re not going to let Penn State falter into a program like SMU,” Mike said, referring to the “death penalty” Southern Methodist University received in 1987 for massive violations of NCAA rules and regulations. The Mustangs’ 1987 season was canceled, and school officials opted to sit out the 1988 season. The Mustangs had just one winning season in the next 20 years.
“We really take pride in football, especially at Penn State,” Mike said. “Every single person who comes here has proven they’re a special person. That’s why Penn State was able to withstand the sanctions.”
Paying the price
It still bothers Tom that Mike and his teammates are paying for a crime in which they played no part.
“It’s totally unfair what they did to the football program,” Tom said. “I’ve thought about it a lot. What should have been Mike’s best years, it’s been one thing after another. I feel for all those kids. They got punished for something they had nothing to do with. It was a criminal matter for the courts.”
Sandusky was Tom’s position coach at Penn State, and Tom said that “I, as a player, would not think that was going on.”
He believes that Bill O’Brien, who was named head coach in 2012 following the firing of Joe Paterno in November 2011, was the “right guy at the right time,” and that O’Brien’s mentality showed in the Lions’ “toughness and resilience.”
“I think these guys banded together,” Tom said. “They were determined not to let things bother them. They made the best of it.”
The atmosphere obviously was much different in the early ’70s, and that’s why Tom committed to Penn State. He liked the fact the Lions’ football program was extremely stable, and that Paterno, who was named head coach in 1966, was beginning to take the Lions from the Eastern spotlight into national prominence.
Mike, however, is playing for his third full-time coach, not to mention interim coaches Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson, and his fourth defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop.
But Mike has put a positive spin on his experience.
“I’ve been through a lot of different coaching changes, and I’ve seen a little bit of everything,” he said. “I think that’s what’s made my experience here so great: seeing the different philosophies and coaching styles. I’ve taken a little piece from every defensive coordinator. … It’s been a crazy ride. Not many people can say they came to Penn State and played for three different head coaches.”
Linebacker in charge
Last season, Mike was second on the team with 78 tackles (44 solo) despite missing two full games and most of two others with a knee injury. He added 4.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble.
This year, he is moving from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, so the defense will lean on him for leadership and direction. It’s a role that, despite his relatively quiet nature, he has gladly accepted.
“I’m just a laid-back type guy. Where I’m from, that’s how you grow up,” he said. “Now I realize that I have to be more vocal and get the linebackers where they have to be if we want our defense to be as successful as possible. … I just have to be really decisive out on the field because that’s what it’s going to take on Saturday whenever things are going to be thrown at you..”
Mike is listed at 6 feet, 232 pounds on the Lions’ roster, and even though he isn’t a real big guy, it makes no difference to Franklin.
“He doesn’t blow you away when you look at him in terms of how big he is, but he’s big enough to get the job done,” Franklin said. “We need him to be really verbal, and he was more verbal this spring than he’s ever been, and he’s comfortable doing that now than ever before.
“I think he’s going to have a really big year for us. I brought that thing up about his size because when we moved him inside, I know there were a lot of questions about that. Is he big enough to do that? We think he is.”
So does Mike, who played inside linebacker throughout his high school career, and he enjoyed a productive year playing inside during his sophomore year at Penn State. Mike said he relies more on his speed, intensity and instincts than size to get the job done.
“I just have a certain style of play I use,” Mike said. “I do a lot of things people can’t do because they’re either too big or too slow.”
Plus, said Tom, his son hates to lose. “He’s intense when he gets on the field. He’s well-motivated. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t apply yourself … You’ve got to make yourself better every day. He learned that at an early age.”
A perfect case in point is the fact Mike regularly ranks among the strongest non-linemen in team strength and conditioning testing. In July, he recorded 30 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press at the Lions’ Lift for Life, a fundraiser organized by the football team that raises awareness and money for kidney cancer. That feat would have tied him for the most reps on the bench press among linebackers at this year’s NFL combine.
“He just wants to be first, even if he’s just playing checkers,” Tom said. “He always seems to do well in big moments. He seems to have handled the pressure well. But he always remembers the plays he didn’t make.”
Mike graduated in May with a degree in finance and a 3.3 grade-point average. He is taking more undergraduate classes in the fall, choosing to focus on football and staying healthy – and maybe sneaking in some fishing with his roommate and teammate, defensive end Brad Bars, at a lake near the university.
Mike said he spent nearly three months resting his injured knee after the 2013 season, and that it felt great all spring.
“You can’t really control that kind of stuff; you can’t worry about it,” he said. “You just go out there and give it all you’ve got every single time, and whatever is meant to be is meant to be. You can’t control how healthy you are. I only have one more shot at this, and I’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts.”
And you can bet that Tom and his wife, Donna, will be watching their son every step of the way. Except for the game at Indiana, the Hulls will make every game this season, including the opener Aug. 30 in Dublin, Ireland, against Central Florida in the Croke Classic.
“It’s hard to believe it’s his last year. You just have to cherish every game,” Tom said. “I’m proud of him. He’s gone through a lot. Last year, he was all hyped up, then the MCL strain slowed him up. He was always a step, step-and-a-half away from where he was. It was a tough year for him. Hopefully, knock on wood, he’ll stay healthy.”