Penn State upholds linebacker tradition

James Hawkins, The Detroit News
NaVorro Bowman

Fourth in a series

Penn State often has been referred to as “Linebacker U” for its reputation of producing NFL-quality linebackers.

The moniker began in the late 1960s with All-Americans Dennis Onkotz and Jack Ham and has been carried on by Big Ten linebacker of the year award winners Michael Mauti (2012) and Mike Hull (2014).

In between there was two-time All-American and 1987 NFL defensive rookie of the year Shane Conlan, standout LaVar Arrington — the second overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft — and 2010 NFL sacks leader Cameron Wake.

According to Detroit News research, there’s still validity to that nickname in today’s game. Using the 2015 season-ending NFL rosters and injured reserve lists as a barometer, Penn State tied Florida State for the second-most linebackers with seven each, trailing Georgia’s eight.

While Penn State didn’t claim the top spot, three Nittany Lions ranked in the top seven of the NFL in tackles last season. San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman led the league with 154 tackles, followed by Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny (133 tackles, fifth most) and Dallas’ Sean Lee (128 tackles, tied sixth most).

“You look across the NFL, you look across the past decade here at Penn State and the production at the position, I think it speaks for itself,” said Brent Pry, Penn State associate head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

“There’s some other schools out there that certainly are producing some great linebacker play, some great linebackers, but I certainly think Penn State is going to be in that conversation.”

Pry said Penn State’s ability to manufacture NFL talent is twofold. Its reputation allows it to recruit the best linebackers in the country and once those players are in the program, there’s a standard, a level of expectation and a legacy that’s passed down from class to class.

“There’s just a pride in the unit,” he said. “They think about those guys who have come before them and they trained under them. When those guys were juniors and seniors and they come in as a pup as a freshman, you got these All-American-caliber guys.

“In my room right now, what Mike Hull means to them, to work the way he did and approach the game the way he did, those guys looked up to Mike tremendously and learned so much from him. It went beyond what I coach them.”

Pry added it’s more than just the on-field production that separates Penn State linebackers from the rest. It’s also the maturity, leadership and work ethic that’s instilled in the players and how they conduct themselves.

“There’s kind of another notch that you look for that has a bunch of intangibles related to it,” he said.

“It’s something that these guys learn underneath the vets in how to go about your business.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Football recruiters hit paydirt in three states

About this series

To find out which states and conferences produced the most football talent, The Detroit News created a database of the season-ending 2015 rosters for every NFL team.

Detroit News series

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Penn State upholds linebacker tradition

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SEC dominates in sending defensive linemen to NFL