Former walk-on DE Carl Nassib blossoming into a star for Penn State

Carl Nassib, who was on many preseason breakout lists, has had a fast start to the season and already has 5.5 sacks. Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Carl Nassib just shook his head upon hearing his stat line Saturday -- three sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception -- and then just smiled and shook his head again.

Would he have believed this kind of performance back when he was a rookie?

"Maybe. I don't know," Nassib said Saturday, before pausing and then letting out a laugh. "Probably not."

He laughed again: "Probably not. Y'know?"

He couldn't have seen this coming. Penn State's fifth-year defensive end first arrived in Happy Valley as a 215-pound walk-on, after all. Most recruiting sites didn't even bother to create his profile; he was supposed to be a career-long scout-team player.

But Nassib parlayed that chip on his shoulder into motivation that saw him add nearly 60 pounds of muscle over the last four seasons. Now, through two games, Nassib already leads the Nittany Lions' defense in five different categories: tackles (15), tackles-for-loss (5.5), sacks (4), forced fumbles (2) and interceptions (1). And, nationally, only one player -- Iowa State's Dale Pierson -- has recorded more sacks.

It's an unlikely rise, but his performance so far still hasn't come as a surprise to those who know him best. Despite this being Nassib's first year as a starter he was a popular choice among analysts on their preseason breakout lists -- mostly because the staff regarded him so highly before the season.

"He's the type of guy who I think will come out of nowhere and have the type of year that could be an All-Big Ten caliber year," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said back in April. "He could be a five- or 10-year veteran in the NFL. He's got a lot of potential."

Added coach James Franklin, four days before the season: "I love the guy. I think the team gets sick of me talking about him, because I constantly use him as examples for some of his peers … that if you believe in yourself and you got a great work ethic, then you got a chance to do some special things."

Former coach Bill O'Brien often praised Nassib for his effort during practice, and he offered the walk-on a scholarship in 2013. Although Nassib played sparingly -- the defensive line boasted plenty of depth the past few years -- he bided his time. He gained five pounds in 2013, 14 pounds in 2014 and then another 14 pounds in 2015.

He hit the field hard and the weight-room harder. He transformed himself from a 6-foot-6, 215-pound high school senior in 2010 into a 6-foot-7, 272-pound college senior in 2015. He went from skinny and relatively slow, to solid and quick enough to drop back into coverage -- yes, even as a defensive end.

"I always like to represent Walk-On University," Nassib said. "My fellow walk-ons on the team don't think I'm part of that anymore because I'm a graduate. But, no, I still rep that every day. If you have a walk-on's mentality -- just grinding every day, just earning your keep every day -- it's just the way to do it."

Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said it was an "unbelievable experience" just to watch Nassib go to work Saturday. Linebacker Troy Reeder called him a "great leader" and "a little bit of a psycho" (in a good way). So did safety Jordan Lucas.

Nassib admitted Saturday that, even in high school, he never had a game quite like this. ("It was fun," he added.) But he seemed uneasy when reporters sought his reaction for all the compliments. He said he just wanted to win games and not focus on the praise.

Even if he doesn't want to hear it, he's a blossoming star and an early candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year. He's also one of this team's best players.

But, at heart, he's still a walk-on. And that's what makes him so dangerous.