STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Carl Nassib might be the most unlikely story in all of college football.
He never started a game in high school. He was so skinny as a college freshman -- 6-foot-6, 218 pounds -- that his fellow walk-ons wondered aloud what position he played. And he enrolled in Penn State after, unsurprisingly, receiving no other attention from a Power 5 school.
“First of all,” said his older brother, Ryan, the backup quarterback for the New York Giants, “none of the smaller schools wanted him, either.”
But Nassib, a quiet, introverted fifth-year senior, never relented. When teammates playfully teased him for being so thin, he hit the weight room. When he grew frustrated with his effort against double teams, he hit the weight room. And when he was told he was too slow, too weak or not talented enough to stack up against the Big Ten? He hit the -- well, you get the idea.
Now, after five years of persistence, he’s finally the Nittany Lions’ starting defensive end. He entered this season with two career sacks; he’s had at least two in two different games so far. Nassib now quietly sits second in the nation with eight sacks. (He holds a half-sack lead over Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, a preseason All-American and a former five-star recruit.)
“That’s pretty interesting, now that you say it out loud,” Carl Nassib said, pausing. “I just always wanted to prove to myself that I was a good player. I never cared what other people thought of me. I still don’t think I’ve made it.”
By all accounts, Nassib was a late bloomer. He played sparingly as a high school sophomore, suffered an injury as a junior and was the No. 3 defensive end as a senior. Actually, if it wasn’t for the last game of his high school career, he might not even be here.
On a Thanksgiving Day rivalry game, during a sideways sleet, Nassib stared at the opposing offensive linemen from the sideline and noticed, during pass plays, how their backs tended to straighten. In six defense series, he exploited that to the tune of a career-high 2.5 sacks and a pass deflection. He spliced together that film on Final Cut Pro and mailed it to then-Penn State assistant Ron Vanderlinden.
No one else wanted Nassib. But, five years later, Vanderlinden still remembers that DVD.
“I saw a tall, rangy body that had a knack,” said Vanderlinden, who now coaches at Air Force. “He had good timing. He batted down some balls and made plays that showed toughness and wherewithal. He played with good leverage. I remember how much I liked him; he just needed to add weight.”
Bulking up soon became Nassib’s main focus at Penn State. As a freshman, at Mifflin Hall, he and fellow walk-on Deron Thompson would move around study-hall furniture at night, drag in a speaker and just pump out push-ups and sit-ups. “Sometimes,” Thompson said, “we’d get a noise violation, so we’d have to turn down the music.”
While most players napped during the hour-break between meetings and practice, Nassib performed bench-presses and squats. He’d show up to practice sore and sweating -- but, he told himself, at least he was warmed up. When he knew he wouldn’t be playing Saturdays, he lifted on Fridays. When the team relaxed on its day off, Nassib could still be found in the weight room -- or Chipotle, depending on the hour. (His favorite meal remains chicken and rice, a staple of the restaurant.)
“I just remember that every time I talked to Carl he was always, ‘Just leaving the weight room, just leaving the weight room,’” Ryan Nassib said. “Everything that’s coming to him now, he absolutely deserves because he started from scratch. Every year, he just got a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”
Nassib slowly transformed himself -- adding 57 pounds, including 17 pounds going into this season, and even grew an inch -- into a 6-7, 275-pound starter at Penn State. And he only became more motivated in 2013, when he finally received a scholarship.
Not that he expected it. Nassib assumed Bill O’Brien, the coach at the time, was planning to give him an earful for not paying his tuition bill on time. Nassib had forgotten. He worried he wouldn’t be eligible for practice; he worried more about O’Brien’s temper.
Nassib phoned his father, hoping for some advice, but he was forced to leave a voicemail. His fear gave way to joy only when Thompson, walked out with a scholarship. Soon after, so did a smiling Nassib, who swears he didn’t cry -- but had to restrain himself from jumping out of his chair and fist-pumping.
“I could see it in his eyes that he was pumped,” Thompson remembered. “We talked countless times about this moment. It was amazing.”
Added Nassib: “Once I got that scholarship, I wanted to contribute even more. I wanted them to know they didn’t make a mistake.”
They knew. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said in April that Nassib could “come out of nowhere and have that type of year that could be an All-Big Ten caliber year.”
Shoop isn’t the only one that Nassib has impressed. He chatted up a young girl with Down Syndrome last Monday and ate lunch with her -- in a Chipotle, of course -- and Franklin received a thank-you letter from a grateful, stunned family later that day. His teammate, cornerback Grant Haley, said, “I really look up to him.” And his old high school coach still can’t get over how far Nassib has come.
“I have no other words for his transformation, other than amazing,” said Kevin Pellegrini, the former coach at Malvern (Pa.) Prep. “I couldn’t be happier. This wasn’t something God-given. This is something he worked for.”
Nassib is taking his newfound fame in stride. Mostly. He detests the spotlight -- and he hates hearing his accolades even more. The biology major greeted news of his national sacks ranking with a polite smile but grimaced every time it was mentioned afterward.
“I don’t care about stats or anything like that. I just care about a win or a loss, you know?” Nassib said. “I’d rather have no stats and all wins. It’s cool -- but I don’t really care too much.”
Nassib even pulled out of a news conference last week because of a chemistry exam. Although, Franklin said, he was pretty sure there was no actual exam.
“Yeah,” Pellegrini said with a laugh. “That’s so Carl. It was never about him; always about the team.”
Even if Nassib doesn’t want to address reporters, he’s done plenty of talking with his play on the field. He’s second nationally in sacks (8) and tackles-for-loss (10), and he’s third in forced fumbles (3). He even has an interception and a pass deflection.
He’s a big reason Penn State has a top-15 defense. And even if he can’t keep up this 1.6-sacks-a-game pace, no one is asking what position he plays or wondering if he belongs.
“That’s a great story,” Vanderlinden said. “And he’s made it all happen himself.”