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Big tests await Penn State linebacker Mauti |

Big tests await Penn State linebacker Mauti

Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Deion Barnes (18) and linebacker Michael Mauti (42) tackle Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller (5)during their Leaders Division game at Beaver Stadium in University Park on October 27, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

The NFL Scouting Combine is most associated with the 40-yard dash and other physical tests, but the interview process is also a major component of the evaluation extravaganza that starts Wednesday.

Michael Mauti delivered the essence of what he will tell NFL coaches and general managers in Indianapolis when he answered a question about where he is after suffering a knee injury that ended his decorated Penn State career last November.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I will be ready to play at a high level again,” Mauti said.

Mauti will spend the next couple of months trying to convince NFL teams of that.

He has to hope a body of work that made Mauti arguably one of the most significant figures in Penn State sports history is enough to offset the reality that he likely won’t be able to run for teams before the draft in late April.

And what will really challenge NFL teams when putting a draft grade on Mauti: He is working his way back from a third serious knee injury in the last five years.

“I’ve done it twice now, and I’m going to do it again,” Mauti said of making a comeback. “No one was talking about it (in 2012) — the fact that I was coming off an injury, and my play spoke for itself.”

If anyone can convince coaches and general managers that a perceived negative is actually a positive, it is Mauti.

His force of personality, punctuated by a flinty stare and jutted jaw, helped keep Penn State together last July after the NCAA hit the football program with severe sanctions and allowed players to transfer without penalty.

Mauti then enjoyed a season for the ages in helping Penn State overcome an 0-2 start and become one of college football’s stories of the year. A knee injury suffered after a low block against Indiana ended Mauti’s season in the next-to-last game.

He still was named Big Ten Linebacker of the Year after recording 96 tackles and intercepting three passes in 11 games. And Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said the team that gambles on Mauti — that will presumably come in the latter part of the seven-round draft — will get a bargain.

“He’s a football player,” said O’Brien, who spent 2007-12 with the Patriots before taking his current job. “He’s just a great teammate, a great locker room guy. He’s the exact opposite of a prima donna. That’s why I think somebody should take a chance on him.”

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Mauti, who made several All-American teams in 2012, likely would have been a second-round pick if not for suffering the second major injury to his left knee in as many years. Teams now have to project whether Mauti, who would play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and outside in a 4-3 scheme, will return as strong as ever.

“He’s a warrior, and it’s a shame he had the injuries,” Kiper said. “The bloodlines are there, the toughness, the leadership.”

Mauti’s father, Rich, played wide receiver in the NFL for eight seasons, seven of them with the Saints. Mauti is leaving nothing to chance in trying to follow his father’s path from Penn State to the NFL.

He is training with former Penn State teammate Mike Zordich at Xcel Sports Performance outside of New Orleans and regularly working out as many as six hours a day.

The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has added muscle and lowered his body fat, and Mauti does squats and power cleans as part of his lifting regimen.

Mauti declined to talk about the exact nature of his injury — he won’t run at the Combine and is unlikely to do so at Penn State’s Pro Day — but he said it is becoming less of an issue with each passing day.

“You wouldn’t know this kid has had a knee injury at all,” said Jason DeMelo, the director of performace at Xcel Sports Performance. “He’s killing everything. He just works hard, heals quickly.”

DeMelo has some expertise on the subject.

He worked with Mauti the previous two times the linebacker suffered season-ending knee injuries at Penn State. DeMelo said he also expects Mauti, who will participate in the 225-pound bench press at the Combine, to come back stronger.

“The kid’s got unbelievable heart,” DeMelo said.

Mauti tried to reinforce that point to NFL teams when he wrote a letter to every general manager in the league explaining how much playing at football’s highest level means to him. Mauti downplayed the letter-writing campaign that the NFL Network reported to his surprise last month, and he was reluctant to talk in depth about it because he didn’t want it to come across as self-serving.

“I wanted to let people in the NFL know I was going to be ready to play,” Mauti said, “and I plan on playing in the fall.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @ScottBrown_Trib.

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