By Matt Fortuna
Khairi Fortt was a defensive end until his sophomore year at Stamford High School, so he wasn't entirely sure what he had gotten himself into when coming to Penn State three years later as a linebacker.
"When I came here everybody was like, 'Ohhh, you're playing for Linebacker U,' " Fortt said following Saturday's Blue-White game.
"I'm like, Linebacker U?"
Fortt quickly did his research, looking up the definition and soon becoming familiar with the legacy he would be trying to replicate as a Nittany Lion linebacker.
"Like, Linebacker U," Fortt said with conviction. "This is Linebacker University. This is thoroughbred linebackers. The toughest, smartest, most-aware, fastest, quickest. Everything.
"I'm like, 'Oh, I gotta really show up now. I gotta go all-out.' "
Fortt is hoping he, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Nate Stupar can restore the Linebacker U mantra to the unit this fall after an uncharacteristically off-year a season ago.
The first part to that, as they all know, is staying healthy.
Stupar was the only one of the four to not miss a game last season, and he was sidelined Saturday with a left hamstring injury.
"2006, everybody who started the first game started the last game," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said, referring to one of Penn State's more-accomplished linebacking groups. "So when you're staying healthy now that normally allows you to move ahead. So we can put in different things, change a little bit from week to week because we don't have to go over a lot of the basic stuff. The gameplan, we can take it to another level."
After Saturday's scrimmage, Fortt could only gently shake hands with former Penn State players on-site because his right hand was wrapped after losing some skin on a play.
Mauti, meanwhile, took full advantage of having a healthy right shoulder Saturday. An injury there had forced him to miss time toward the end of last season, one year after redshirting the 2009 season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee.
But the redshirt junior dived on the Beaver Stadium grass during halftime of the abbreviated scrimmage, doing his best slip-and-slide with teammates Mike Zordich and Silas Redd.
Hodges, meanwhile, was singled out by Bradley for his work ethic this spring after missing four games last season.
"The first time you're hurt, I don't think you realize how rehab is tough," Bradley said. "All the things you have to go through, they're not used to it. They get down on themselves. They really haven't secured their place yet on the team, so it's an iffy situation. But he's really played well. Give him his due."
Bradley said the 2011 unit can match up athletically with the 2006 linebackers - Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee.
"That's definitely a great compliment," said Hodges, a converted safety. "I love Coach Bradley to death. I've seen me and his relationship grow the past few years and we're closer and he comes to me and talks to me. He just lets me know a lot of stuff and he always gives me tips here or there. And for him to say that, I mean, that's just a blessing. It just feels good and boosts our confidence level when he says things like that."
Coming off a 2005 season that saw him win the Butkus Award, Posluszny was asked to move from the outside to the middle to get Lee more playing time.
Likewise, Mauti is moving to the middle this year. And, though cautious, Bradley is optimistic that the selflessness of this season's unit is a good start to emulating that great group from five years ago.
"They all knew the type of player they were, very comfortable within what they did," Bradley said of the 2006 linebackers. "I think that's why when you ask a guy like Paul to move it was very unselfish because he was very confident in his abilities and took on the challenge without - a lot of times you think the Butkus winner would give you a 'Why am i moving?' He didn't say a word.
"I think most of us knew Sean was a pretty good football player and he wanted him in the lineup, and that's what we'll do this year, too. When we get done with all this evaluating, even in the fall, whoever the best linebackers are, we'll try to figure a scheme to get those guys in there."