STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull didn't have any expectations when he strolled into his linebacker coach's office on a warm spring day, but he would leave with words that played on his mind for months.
The redshirt junior, whose father and uncle both played for Penn State, would routinely reflect on past greats at Linebacker U every time he'd step inside his position coach's workplace. It was difficult not to. Ron Vanderlinden's office was littered with photos and blue-and-white jerseys of the past greats he tutored -- NFL players such as Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti.
Vanderlinden's decorating spoke louder than any résumé or award. Hull knew that. So, about a week before finals, when the seasoned coached leaned in and reflected on the past greats himself, Hull listened intently. And the linebacker coach shared a tidbit that Hull said, deep down, he already knew, but Vanderlinden forced it to sink in: You're next. Your jersey or photo will be in this office soon enough.
"It just hit me then," Hull told ESPN. "I've been playing since my redshirt freshman year, but I was never really 'the guy.' And he just made it clear it's my time to step up."
That feeling, that understanding, never left last season's No. 4 linebacker. After the graduation of PSU's two Butkus Award semifinalists in Mauti and Gerald Hodges, he's "the guy" now -- and he'll be depended on more than ever these next two seasons with a corps short on experience and shorter on depth.
Hull isn't a big talker. He won't regale the media with stories about big hits and future goals. He'll wear a slight smile and speak mostly in short, punctuated sentences. To Hull, actions speak louder than words. So he showed over the summer what those words from Vanderlinden meant.
After intense, two to two-and-a-half hour workouts, players would happily head back to their dorms or apartments. Their legs would ache, pools of sweat would slide down their backs, and they didn't feel much like doing anything except, fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said, maybe take a nap. "Usually, you just want to go home," Carson added.
But Hull would linger after those workouts and head right back to the field. He'd bend over the football sled and pile on five or six plates -- about 300 pounds -- before dragging it across the gridiron. Thirty yards, then 25 yards, then 20 yards to work on his burst. He'd do that for 15-30 minutes.
His teammates would furrow their brows and contort their faces upon seeing Hull stack the sled up with twice as much weight as they were used to. Hull got a kick out of it all.
"They'd look at me like I was a little bit crazy," Hull said with a laugh. "That's what it takes if you want to be good, I guess."
Added coach Bill O'Brien: "Yeah, Mike Hull is one of the best football players on our team. ... He's a guy that means a lot to this football team."
Pick a randon player from Penn State's roster and ask him who had the best offseason. Chances are good that he'll say Hull. The outside linebacker, along with offensive guard John Urschel, received the most nods in a random sampling of eight players. Urschel said Hull was poised for a breakout season, Carson praised his strength, and Malcolm Willis mentioned Hull as a "guy who works his butt off."
It's not difficult to see why. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety after he ran a laser-timed 4.6, and Hull out-lifted the likes of DT DaQuan Jones on the bench-press last year at 405 pounds. "Strength" and "speed" have become buzzwords in the college football lexicon, but Hull remains unique. After all, there aren't many linebackers who run like safeties and bench like defensive tackles.
"Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference," Urschel said. "I mean, you guys have seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."
Hull wouldn't say exactly what his expectations were for this season, nor would he list his goals. Maybe he doesn't have a certain number of turnovers he wants to force or triple-digit tackles he wants to make.
The Penn State linebacker kept it simple when asked, then, why he worked so hard and why those words from Vanderlinden stuck with him so much.
"I just don't want to accept failure," he said. "I don't want to leave anything out on the field."