Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti has received a lot of national accolades before even hitting an opponent with malice in the 2011 football season. He has been termed a "player to watch" in the Big Ten, and is on the watch lists for the Butkus Award and the Nagurski Trophy.

As for his reaction to all this attention, Mauti, you might say, is overwhelmingly underwhelmed.

"I guess it's better to be on those lists than not," he said. "But it really doesn't mean anything. I get a text or a call when someone sees my name, but I don't even think about that sort of thing. In preseason, that's nothing.

"At the end of the season, nobody's going to be talking about who was preseason all-Big Ten or whatever. You can't pay attention to it. Yeah, you can use it as motivation. Really, it just kind of lets you know that people are looking at you, which is good. I'm just excited to get out there and show people that we've got the Penn State defense back."

If the Nittany Lions defense is back this season, following a 7-6 season full of struggles, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Mauti will have to set the tone. The redshirt junior, who was moved from middle linebacker to the strong side at the start of preseason, epitomizes the intensity, desire, and aggressiveness seen in the great Penn State linebackers.

Mauti, who said he never heard of the term "Linebacker U" until his freshman year of high school, prefers to accept the spotlight as the next great Lions linebacker rather than run from it.

"I look at it as a kind of incentive," said Mauti, whose father, Rich, played for Joe Paterno in the mid-1970s and spent eight years in the NFL. "I don't feel pressure or get nervous really. I just kind of embrace it and use it as motivation to go to work every day, watch film, and just improve myself and what I'm doing."

Mauti would love a season free of injuries. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during preseason practice two years ago and sat out the entire season. Two nagging injuries in 2010 - a high-ankle sprain against Iowa and a dislocated shoulder against Ohio State - sidelined him for two games and limited him in three others.

Mauti finished fifth on the team in tackles with 67 (32 solo). His best game came against Northwestern, with 11 tackles, three for losses, in the game that got Paterno his 400th career win.

"You can't think about injuries," Mauti said. "There are things I do specifically in the weight room, like different exercises with my legs and knees that I did during the summer. I've been doing extra work on my shoulders. I sit in the training room icing everything. So that's really all I can do to prevent it."

Mauti feels the injuries have not delayed him on reaching his full potential.

"I'm sitting here, and I've got two years left in my career here at Penn State," he said. "For a lot of guys, that is a career. To me, I don't feel like I've scratched the surface. I'm getting a lot of attention, but I've still got a long way to go."

Mauti gained 13 pounds in the offseason in anticipation of playing in the middle. However, even with his move to the strong side, or SAM, where he competed last season, he'll keep the added weight "as long as I'm comfortable and feel like I can run."

"With SAM, you play in space a lot more," he said. "In some situations, you're more like a strong safety. In the middle, you're downhill, a little less dependent on pass responsibilities although you do have some. So that's the difference."

As a leader of his unit, Mauti feels the defense will come together because it is a year older and more experienced. He sees good things happening.

"I think we've got a lot of potential here on this defense, guys with experience coming back," he said. "I think you can say that about any position on defense. We've got leaders stepping up.

"I've just been enjoying the experience and embracing it. I'm just excited to be a part of it, really."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.