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August 13, 2013When Penn State linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden talks about depth at his position as, "a work-in-progress," Gary Wooten is usually the next name out of his mouth.
Whether or not the Miami native is completely ready for his first game action as a Nittany Lion this season is up for debate, but one thing is certainly not. As the backup to starting senior middle linebacker Glenn Carson, Wooten is going to see his fair share of time between the white lines this year.
"I've been watching film, I know my alignments now, and I'm doing great. Coach said to get better every day, and that's what I'm doing now," Wooten said. "I just studied my playbook and stay ready. Anytime they call my name, I'll be ready to go on the field and do my part.
"I came a long way. I redshirted last year. I was on the Dirty Show, giving the offense a look. But, now this year is my year to step up and play a role."
Truly, Wooten has come a long way.
A 2011 graduate of Hialeah High School, Wooten's test scores were not high enough to guarantee enrollment at many of a variety of FBS offers he held following an 88 tackle, 10 sack senior season. The former Rivals.com three-star prospect was pursued by Florida International, Nevada, and, eventually, Miami, but admission remained out of reach, leaving Wooten at home to improve both physically and academically.
As he focused on rising test scores, Wooten's stature also grew from a roughly 200 pound high school defensive end into a 225 pound linebacker.
Earning an extremely late offer from Penn State last August, Wooten quickly decided to accept and arrived at Penn State in the middle of the Nittany Lions' preseason camp. As expected, he settled into a developing role on Bill O'Brien's famed 'Dirty Show' scout team as a weakside linebacker.
Those days are no longer, though.
Having transformed through Craig Fitzgerald's weight program into a 6-foot-2, 238-pounder, Wooten has shifted all his attention to middle linebacker, and, according to Vanderlinden, has made significant strides the past year.
"Gary has improved," Vanderlinden said. "Gary from the spring has increased his football IQ. He is more assertive than he was. Going from D-end to linebacker in the spring was a real learning process. He's taken another big step forward."
Of course, for as optimistic as Penn State's coaches have been in reference to Wooten - especially considering the perilous depth situation of the linebackers - O'Brien may have been able to temper expectations somewhat when talking about his raw, young, soft-spoken linebacker at the program's recent preseason media day.
"Wooten has definitely improved - got a long way to go. Got a long way to go, but a big guy. Put on some weight in the off season," O'Brien said. "Hopefully he can help us on special teams and as a backup linebacker. Good kid, really good kid. Works really hard at it."
According to Carson, that hard work was a constant presence throughout Penn State's linebacker room this summer.
With no one in the program dancing around the cold reality facing the linebackers this season (i.e., starters will be fine; backups need to make serious improvements, quickly), Wooten says he hopes to contribute in any way he's asked.
"I can help out on special teams. On defense, when they call my name to get in, I can make plays for the defense," Wooten said. "For the team, don't let them down, and just do my job. It's real exciting.
"I'm not nervous at all... A little bit. But, I'm ready for it."
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