INDIANPOLIS – The killers began to roll through the Combine media room on Saturday: Ziggy Ansah, Tank Carradine, Corey Lemonier, Datone Jones, Alex Okafor.
“Africa pumps out some beasts, man,” said the Nigeria-descended Okafor. And he wasn’t kidding around.
Yep, the Steelers could certainly use one of them. Those are some of the first-rounders.
Another, smaller beast took to the podium a while later. He was more of a mid-round talent, but if he’s anything like the Penn State linebackers who’ve come before him – Jack Ham, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Cameron Wake, Tamba Hali, Sean Lee, NaVorro Bowman – Mike Mauti will play like a first-rounder.
“Penn State pumps out some beasts, man,” Mauti should have said.
Instead, he breathed slowly and intensely into the microphone as reporters continued their long-winded questions about the three ACL tears that have turned Mauti’s early-round dreams into a career-threatening struggle.
“I’ve done this before,” Mauti told the media. “I know where I’m supposed to be at certain times. I’ve come off these injuries before to play at a high level like I have before. There’s no doubt in my mind I’ll be playing at the same level again.”
The son of former Penn State and NFL wide receiver Rich Mauti, Mike graduated from high school in Louisiana a semester early so he could play in every Penn State game as a true freshman in 2008. But the next summer he tore his right ACL and sat out 2009 with a redshirt.
Mauti came back in 2010, made 67 tackles, and then played four games in 2011 before tearing his left ACL.
He returned last season as the starting weakside outside linebacker and made 95 tackles before again tearing his left ACL in the penultimate game of the season. The team, so distraught at losing its defensive captain, eventual MVP, eventual Big 10 Linebacker of the Year, and eventual first-team All-America, posted his No. 42 prominently across the side of its pristine helmets.
“He’s a natural-born leader,” explained teammate Jordan Hill on Saturday. “If you’re walking down a dark alley, that’s the guy you want to take with you. I’m taking Mike Mauti.”
Mauti’s passion, his leadership, was put on display in the middle of the season against Illinois, a team that had made no secret about recruiting Penn State’s players when the NCAA ruled open season on Nittany Lions.
Mauti took it personally. The stories of him smashing his head into lockers before the game are becoming legend. But he did more than that. He intercepted two passes in the game, one he returned 99½ yards as the clock was chugging toward zeroes before halftime. It was a play eerily reminiscent of the greatest play in Super Bowl history by James Harrison.
“Except I didn’t score,” Mauti bit off when the subject was broached at the Combine. “Yeah, I knew I wasn’t getting away from that one today.”
Mauti has been pulled from team to team here, just like any other player with a major medical question mark. But he said he’s also been asked about that play by plenty of coaches, who saw the determination Mauti had in scoring.
Whereas Harrison had a tackler to roll over at the 1-yard line, Mauti was downed at the half-yard line by a defender who dove on the back of Mauti’s lower legs.
“You gotta score. There’s just no excuse,” Mauti said. “You go 99 and a half, you’ve gotta get it in the end zone.”
Mauti said “absolutely” he had seen Harrison’s play. After all, he’s a Pennsylvania kid, merely born in New Orleans because his dad was there playing football.
“He was just kamikaze,” Mauti said of his father. “He was just flying around on special teams, throwing his body into people. That kind of mindset was what I learned from. You play the game like your hair’s on fire.”
So it’s no surprise that Mauti’s antennae went up when the opening behind Larry Foote and the Steelers came up.
But can a 4-3 will backer from Penn State play the 3-4 buck in Pittsburgh?
“We played a little bit of that in what we called the penny package when Tom Bradley was there, so I’ve been playing in that situation,” said the 6-2, 243-pound Mauti. “I mean, whether you’re running a 30 or 40 you’re playing linebacker, you’re reading, you get your key, and you find the ball. So I could handle that. Absolutely.”
Mauti has met here with Steelers linebackers coach Kevin Butler. And his latest knee surgery was performed by Steelers orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jim Bradley. Little wonder rumors swirl that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is enamored with Mauti.
“I’ve heard that before, absolutely,” Mauti said. “I’d love to sit down with him. I’m looking forward to seeing him. It’d be great. I’d love it.”
But those knees will have to pass muster, and much of that will be evaluated here. To that end Mauti has contacted Lee, his friend and former teammate who missed the 2008 college season with a torn ACL.
“He talked about being yourself,” Mauti said. “That’s what got you to this point, so no reason to change it now and try and be somebody else. The medical eval’s going to be what it is. You can’t really change that, so the rest is just selling what you are and being who you are.”
Mauti was asked about the feedback.
“I think people understand that I’ve responded to an injury like this. Last year I was coming off an ACL and I had an All-American season, so I’ve proven I can do that.”
Will he be ready for training camp in August?
“Yes,” Mauti said firmly.
Is he positive about that?