Mike Hull returned to practice Tuesday. For Penn State, the timing couldn’t have been better.
The dynamic linebacker spent much of last week resting his sprained knee, sitting out the Nittany Lions’ win over Eastern Michigan.
They’ll very much need him back this week.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said Hull is expected to play Saturday against Central Florida, the toughest opponent on the Lions’ non-conference schedule.
Hull made a name for himself last season by helping the Lions improve their pass defense after the team struggled to get off the field on third downs during an 0-2 start. His speed and coverage abilities will be especially important against UCF and standout quarterback Blake Bortles.
This season, the Lions have opened 2-0 despite barely having Hull at all. The junior went down in the first quarter of the opener against Syracuse and briefly returned after a trip to the locker room before being shut down for the second half.
It remains to be seen how close to 100 percent Hull will be in time for the game, but his return would be a boost to a thin linebacker corps. Penn State coaches elected to play Brandon Bell last week, forgoing a redshirt for the true freshman because both Hull and Ben Kline were sidelined.
O’Brien said Hull, Kline (shoulder), LB Nyeem Wartman (shoulder), OT Adam Gress (knee) and RB Bill Belton (undisclosed) are all banged up but considered probable to play.
Safety Ryan Keiser is the lone player O’Brien called “questionable” after being knocked out of the Eastern Michigan game in the first half. If Hull and Kline are both available to play for most of Saturday’s game, it could free up safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to play more at his natural position after filling in at linebacker for the first two weeks.
“I think, if Hull can go, it would be Hull, (Glenn) Carson, and Wartman (starting), more than likely,” O’Brien said. “If Hull has some issues throughout the week, we’ll go with whoever we have there, whether it’s Obeng or somebody else.
“But Obeng will play, and he’ll have a role in the game just like he’s had the past two weeks.”
Tight end Matt Lehman had successful knee surgery on Tuesday morning. He will miss the rest of the season along with DE Brad Bars and WR DaeSean Hamilton. Tight end Brent Wilkerson remains out indefinitely following back surgery.
O’Brien doesn’t get too much time to watch NFL games with his busy schedule. But he certainly made note of what Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles did Monday night.
Kelly, the former Oregon Ducks coach who consulted O’Brien and the New England Patriots staff in the past about running a no-huddle offense, led the Eagles to a 33-27 win in Washington in his NFL debut.
The Eagles ran out of steam late but had been on pace to set an NFL record after running 53 plays on offense in the first half.
“It was unbelievable. It was great,” O’Brien said. “It’s kind of a fine line that you walk with your tempo. You’re trying to control the tempo of the game. A lot of it has to do with how your defense is playing.
“With the way our defense has been playing in the last couple games, it was probably appropriate for us to be in more fast-tempo because our defense was playing pretty well. I think you have to get the flow of the game to see how the game’s going.”
O’Brien doesn’t run his offense at the same breakneck pace as Kelly, but he enjoys it just the same.
“I love to play at a fast pace,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a lot of fun for the kids. It’s fun in practice. They enjoy it. They have a lot of confidence in it. So we’ll try to keep mixing it in there.”
UCF hasn’t had to break much of a sweat this season. The Knights are 2-0 and have outscored opponents 76-7, including a shutout of lowly Akron last week.
The team’s biggest concern on its trip north may be the health of starting left tackle Torrian Wilson, who injured a knee late in last Friday’s blowout.
Knights coach George O’Leary did not provide an update on Wilson at his weekly press conference on Monday. Wilson would likely be the one to match up with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes, who is looking for his first sack of the season.