Heading into the fourth game of the 2011 season, the Nittany Lions were in the middle of an eventual seven-game winning streak. It would ultimately put them in position to win a Big Ten title.
Little did outside linebacker Michael Mauti know that game against Eastern Michigan would be his last start of the season.
About a full year after an ACL tear — the second of his career — forced him to miss the last nine games of the 2011 season, Mauti remembers the injury like it were yesterday. However, having returned to a new era of Penn State football, the fifth-year senior said he tries to channel out the injury and offer every ounce of energy to lead this year’s team.
“It’s hard not to think about, but I’m in the training room everyday doing rehab and corrective exercises to constantly keep my knee stronger,” Mauti said. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m just having fun out there right now, making plays.”
And Mauti, who said he feels as healthy as he will ever be, has certainly been making a lot of plays through the first three games of the season.
With 33 tackles on the season, he has nine more than any other player on the team and ranks third in the Big Ten. Mauti has played a vital role in Penn State’s much-improved turnover margin, both forcing and recovering a fumble so far this season.
Further, against Navy, the linebacker ended the Midshipmen’s promising 14-play drive in the second half with a sack. It resulted in a 21-yard loss on fourth down, helping keep the game out of reach.
Coach Bill O’Brien said he could praise Mauti at nauseam because of his extreme dedication to the team.
“He’s a guy that has meant a lot to this football program, to this football team, to his teammates,” O’Brien said. “He’s great in the locker room. And just watching him play…you wish you could have played that way. He just plays every play like it’s his last play.”
Alongside fellow fifth-year senior Michael Zordich, Mauti led about 30 teammates in a vow of commitment to the program shortly after NCAA sanctions were imposed on the program over the summer.
Between Mauti’s actions on and off the field, Zordich said nothing has been unexpected in regard to his roommate’s road back to the gridiron.
“We knew he was going to do that and he’s happy to be back playing football, just like all of us,” the running back said. “He’s worked very hard to get back in this spot and, you know, he’s that kind of athlete where he’s going to make those kinds of plays.”
Redshirt sophomore Paul Jones said going against Mauti’s hard-hitting playing style in practice gave him a quick reminder that the linebacker is back to full strength.
“Those knee injuries didn’t do anything but just give him a couple months off,” Jones said.
“He’s just a tough kid that loves to play football. And he’s just out there letting it all hang loose for his senior year, helping get as many wins as he can.”
Mauti has been named to the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given the nation’s best linebacker.
Yet, when asked how he would evaluate his own play so far this season, he was unsurprisingly quick to deflect the spotlight.
“I mean, personally, it’s really just fun to be out there with the team and helping this team win,” Mauti said.
“That’s really all I care about.”