Penn State's Mauti Right on Track

The Nittany Lion senior expected to have a big final season in Happy Valley. It is coming together nicely for him.

Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti fell agonizingly short of the goal line on his school-record 99-yard interception return last Saturday against Illinois — something his teammates have not hesitated to remind him about — but in just about every other way he has done what he set out to do so far this season.

“I would say if you (media) guys would have played out my season in the summer, how it would go, I'd be on track right now,” he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, as he looked ahead to Saturday's homecoming game against unbeaten Northwestern.

He is “really just flying around,” as he added — and as everyone has surely noticed by now.

“I mean, I feel great,” he said. “I feel great physically and I'm just really having a lot of fun, playing with our defense and playing on this team. Really, I'd say I'm on track and I'd say our team is on track. We've just got to keep continuing to get better and doing what we've been doing.”

Fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered early last season — his second major knee injury in three years — he is playing as well as ever, with a team-high 48 tackles through five games, a total that leaves him tied for fourth in the Big Ten. That includes six stops in the 35-7 rout of the Fighting Illini, a game in which he had two picks in all.

He was as a result named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three games. And while he was among those who downplayed the significance of last Saturday's game, everybody was well aware of what it meant, in light of the Illini's attempted poaching of PSU players over the summer.

Mauti had been vocal about his disdain for that practice. Saturday was the obvious follow-up, and another example of the exceptional leadership he has shown — not only throughout this season, but the entire tumultuous year.

That's something else he downplays, by the way. He said that in his mind leadership is “just being out on the field, making plays,” and indeed safety Malcolm Willis said that Mauti is “more on the quiet side,” a guy more apt to lead by example.

Mauti doesn't believe that makes him unusual among his classmates.

“A lot of our seniors are expected to make those plays and be a big-time contributor,” he said. “That's kind of the way it's been set up. I think that's our role, and a lot of guys have accepted that.”

Willis agreed that the seniors' leadership has been “unmatched.” But again, Mauti seems to have long ago emerged from the pack. He was the one who was chosen to represent the current team as a speaker at Joe Paterno's memorial service in January. He was the one who spoke, along with his roommate, Michael Zordich, when several Lions gave a show of solidarity after the NCAA sanctions were announced in July.

He has stepped forward in smaller, less noticeable ways, too. For one thing, he plays on the punt team — he was bearing down on Illini return man Tommy Davis when Davis fumbled in the first quarter last weekend — something usually reserved for backups. But he doesn't believe that's anything out of the ordinary, either, having seen star linebackers like NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee and Josh Hull do the same when he was an underclassman.

“It was always something I thought, that's just the way that it was,” he said. “I always assumed that I would be on it, and never really thought twice about it. … To me I really enjoy it, just because it is a lot of fun, as you can see. You really have some opportunities to make some big plays.”

And he's all about that, in every phase. He intercepted Nathan Scheelhaase's pass at the goal line in the closing seconds of last Saturday's second quarter, and took off. He would ultimately run further than he had ever run in a game, but was hauled down on the 1 with a single second left in the half.

Coach Bill O'Brien opted for a field-goal attempt, something he said he regretted, after the game and again during his weekly news conference Tuesday, and the 18-yard try by Sam Ficken was blocked. It ultimately didn't matter, as the Lions (3-2) were well on their way to their third straight victory.

And, Mauti said, “Obviously to come so close and not get in there, that one's going to hurt, but what are you going to do? … I've definitely been catching a lot for that — for not getting in, being a couple inches away. There's nothing you can do about it now, but I've definitely been hearing a lot about it.”

O'Brien, who has often spoken glowingly about Mauti and his fellow seniors, said Tuesday that he first met Mauti on Jan. 7, after his first team meeting. Mauti, typically, wanted to know all about the new coach's strength and conditioning program.

“So I knew right away that he was a passionate football player,” O'Brien said.

And in the coach's mind seniors like Zordich, Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges, Stephon Morris and Jake Fagnano are kindred spirits with Mauti.

“I have no idea what's going to happen this year,” O'Brien said. “I always tell you, I'm not a genie, but I do know that this is a very special group of kids that practice very hard and have excellent leadership qualities.”

So it's not that Mauti is uncomfortable being viewed as the face of the team, as someone suggested during Tuesday's call; it's just that he doesn't believe it's an accurate portrayal.

“There's a lot of people in our organization that deserve a lot of credit,” he said. “That's just kind of the way I was raised: I never want to take all the credit. Shoot, you could give it to Coach O'Brien, and a lot of other people — great seniors in our organization. I don't feel uncomfortable with it at all, but I see it a different way sometimes. It's hard for me to see it the way you guys see it, you know?”

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