College football: Carl Nassib has flourished at Penn State
The national leader in sacks in major college football did not start a single game in high school, received no scholarship offers from any Football Bowl Subdivision school, walked on at Penn State where he did not start a single game until his fifth year in the program, and failed to appear on any national radar before the 2015 season began.
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Now Carl Nassib, who went from a 6-foot-5, 218-pound defensive end during his senior year at Malvern Prep to a 6-7, 272-pound powerhouse at the same position for the Nittany Lions, is an all-American candidate, a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award which honors the top defensive player in the country, and a folk hero in Happy Valley.
The West Chester native leads FBS in sacks with 14.5 (1.61 per game) and tackles for loss with 18.5 (2.1). Playing on one of the best defensive lines in the country, he is a non-stop ball of energy who relentlessly pursues quarterbacks and is the first to congratulate a teammate if he gets there first.
Nassib, a two-time Academic all-Big Ten as a biology major, does not crave the attention that comes with these achievements. He would much rather talk about his teammates and the Lions' 7-2 record than his stats. He does not delight in media interviews but he's getting better at them. Still, there's a lot to discuss on how far he has come.
"His journey is a real credit to his perseverance," said his older brother, Ryan, now a backup quarterback for the New York Giants. "Not a lot of people would stick that out in a situation like that. It's just the way he is. But he wanted to be the best player he could and he did everything the right way in terms of the time he put in and the sacrifices he made."
With three games left on the schedule, plus a bowl game, plus a possible chance at the next level (NFLdraftscout.com has him as a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick), Carl Nassib is going to go harder because he wants to keep improving.
"I wanted to be the best that I could be," he said, "and I knew that I wasn't anywhere near it. I still don't think I'm near the best that I can be. So that's what really drives me because I want to see my full potential."
After playing little in his sophomore year in high school and not at all as a junior because of injury, Nassib saw some action as a backup his senior year but wasn't totally convinced that college football would be for him.
"I didn't have my mind set on it," he said. "My dad and my older brother did, they said that I should at least try. From the start, they had more faith in me than I had in myself. I'm really thankful to them for pushing me."
Nassib's high school coach, Kevin Pellegrini, said he liked Nassib's length and the fact that his older brother and father played football. He recalled that Nassib would practice well against Malvern Prep's starting offensive linemen and felt that he might progress in his career beyond high school.
But he is among those who could not have imagined what has happened this season.
"You had a sense that there was something there," Pelligrini said, "but you couldn't have a sense he was going to be the leading sack man in the United States."
Nassib's best game in high school was his final game. Playing in rain, snow and sleet, he had 21/2 sacks in a win over St. Joseph's Prep. The contest provided enough highlights for him to put together a video that he sent to Penn State. He heard back late that winter from linebackers coach Ron VanderLinden.
Nassib's father, Gil, who played college football at Delaware, said his son "could run and he could hit, he just hadn't filled out at 17-18 years old." He said he spoke with VanderLinden a couple of times.
"I guess Penn State saw enough promise in that tape where they thought, hey, this kid could develop into something," he said. VanderLinden "saw some things that he liked and he gave Carl a chance."
Nassib received a scholarship before the start of the 2013 season from then-head coach Bill O'Brien. He called it "awesome" and "amazing" and, even better, he was listed on the team's two-deep at defensive end for the first time. He played in 10 games in 2013 and all 13 games last season.
Last spring, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop predicted a big year for Nassib. Last week, he talked of Nassib and his "off the charts" productivity.
"He works hard, he's humble, he keeps his mouth shut," Shoop said. "He doesn't enjoy all the attention, he's turned off by it. He practices hard every day, he's a great teammate. He's put himself in the discussion for postseason honors, postseason all-star games."
The big day came on Sept. 5 at Lincoln Financial Field where Nassib made his first start at the high school or college level. He said he was "pretty excited and a little nervous." His mother, however, was a little more affected.
"I just really, really, really wanted that for him," said Mary Fischer-Nassib, who competed in volleyball at Villanova. "I wanted him to stay healthy at practice and just get there and have that moment come. So I really didn't care what happened after that. We're all good now. He's gotten there."
It's been a great season for Nassib. He has recorded sacks in all nine games, including season highs of three sacks against Buffalo and 3.5 tackles for loss against Ohio State. And he's getting noticed by football experts.
"I love watching the kid play," said former Penn State all-American and Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen. "He's got more skill than he gets credit for. People say, 'Oh, he was just a walk-on' meaning he was a stiff. He wasn't a stiff. He just needed to mature. He still needs to mature. But the work part will carry him a lot further than guys with more skills."
Nassib has described his personality as funny, nerdy, quirky and crazy without "lunatic tendencies." As for the nerdy, he said he recently was studying organic chemistry and was "talking about recrystalization as a purification mechanism" until he stopped himself.
"I enjoy that stuff," he said. "It just interests me. If that's nerdy, then I guess I'm nerdy."
His mother calls him "philosophical, very deep" and really funny. If he's around family, which includes two brothers, two sisters and about 40 cousins, or his friends, or his teammates, chances are he'll make them laugh.
"He's hilarious, very, very funny," she said. "We have a huge family and when Carl comes, everybody gets excited. They're so happy. They just gather around him."
Nassib said that growing up, he felt he was "pretty awkward and lanky, which I kind of still am."
"I thought 'I've got to be funny' so I just kind of developed a sense of humor," he said. "I like making people laugh and I like making people happy. I always thought it was a good talent if someone was down or sad to make them laugh and brighten their day. I always thought that was pretty awesome."
Nassib said he doesn't regret anything that has happened in his football career. He said there were times "where I was wondering if it was worth it or not."
"Then there would be those really awesome moments when I thought, 'All right, I'm doing the right thing,' " he said. "But even now, sometimes I'll wonder, 'Am I really doing the right thing?' Success or stats, whatever, that doesn't really make me feel like I'm on the right path."
However, there was a time last September when he was in a local Chipotle and struck up a conversation with a woman and her daughter. Head coach James Franklin said he received an email from the woman who praised Nassib.
"The mother just went on and on and on about how that interaction had a huge impact on her daughter and just brightened her entire day," he said. "She just was so impressed with Carl, not only by how he carried himself and presented himself, but how he connected with her daughter."
The conversation also impacted Nassib.
"When you interact with them and make their day, it made me feel like, 'All right, I'm doing the right thing,' " he said. "That made me realize that this comes with a lot of opportunity to impact people. That's what made me feel like, 'Yeah, I'm on the right path.' "
This article was written by Joe Juliano from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.