Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A year ago, Penn State's defensive line meeting room was packed with players, and Aaron Maybin could hang out in the back.
Maybin had a role, but not a key one. He contributed four sacks as a redshirt freshman and had carved a niche as a rush end who could provide a boost every now and then.
Maybin's role figured to remain more or less the same for the 2008 season. Anything he gave Penn State would be gravy, but the defensive line would be solid without him.
Then Chris Baker and Phil Taylor were dismissed from the team, Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma were suspended and Devon Still and Jerome Hayes sustained major injuries.
A few games into the season, the meeting room had nearly cleared out, and Maybin sat down with line coach Larry Johnson.
"He really let me know it was time to turn up the heat," Maybin said. "Because there was nobody else."
Maybin followed orders, and the temperature rose in opponents' backfields. The redshirt sophomore made his first career start in Week 3 at Syracuse and started nine of the final 10 games for the Lions.
He emerged as the Big Ten's top pass rusher, racking up 12 sacks and 19 tackles for loss to go along with three forced fumbles. A first-team AP All-American, Maybin anchored a Penn State defensive line that survived all the personnel losses and ranked ninth nationally against the run (95.9 ypg).
"Obviously, it was a tough situation to deal with," Maybin said. "Being as close as I am with my whole D-line, it was tough to see some guys go down and some guys be removed from the equation because of situations that are out of my control.
"But obviously, I had to step up and contribute a lot of things to this defense. Throughout the course of the season, I've been able to do that."
Stepping up to fill holes has been the theme for Penn State's defense, which ranks third nationally in scoring (12.4 ppg) and fifth in yards allowed (263.9 ypg). Maybin and defensive tackle Jared Odrick emerged on the line, while Navorro Bowman surfaced at linebacker after Penn State lost star Sean Lee to a torn ACL in the spring.
Bowman and Maybin, close friends and native sons of Maryland, discussed their potential opportunities heading into the season.
"The thing about football is your day will come," Bowman said. "You don't even know when. You've just got to be ready. Me and Aaron, ever since we got here, our goal was to get on the field, have those blue jerseys [in practice] with the starting jobs. It was our goal. We set it at the beginning of the season and did our best to reach it."
For Maybin to blossom as an every-down end, he had to do more than rush the passer. He had been an asset on obvious passing downs but needed to establish himself as a run stopper.
"The problem with him before, we were worried that a team might adjust and run the ball right at him," senior defensive end Josh Gaines said. "But now he's playing the run a lot better. He's perfected that. He's becoming more of an all-around D-end, not just playing the pass."
Listed at 245 pounds but probably closer to 240, Maybin is undersized and needed to improve his strength to shed blocks. He made run defense a priority in the offseason and improved all of his numbers in the weight room.
Maybin's muscle also paid off when opposing offenses became more aware of him.
"Guys start to double-team you, roll away from you, chip you and do a whole bunch of different things," he said. "Whenever we did inside stunts, there would be a few guys on me. That's their job, but it's also our job to stay ahead of the curve and make sure you're still in position to make dynamic plays to change the game."
Maybin made plenty, and his rapid rise put him on the NFL radar. As a redshirt sophomore, Maybin might enter April's draft and has been projected by some as a first-round pick. He could enhance his draft stock with a strong performance Jan. 1 against USC in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi (ABC, 5 p.m. ET).
Not bad for a guy in the back of the room a few months ago.
"Obviously, you try to set your goals high and you try to expect the best out of yourself, but this is something not even I had predicted at the beginning of the season," Maybin said. "It's been a very enjoyable experience. I've enjoyed every minute of it."