Five years after the fact, Kevin Pellegrini admits that he probably missed something. Around West Chester, Pa., Pellegrini wryly introduces himself as "the legend known for not starting Carl Nassib in high school."
Bring up his worst sin as the coach at Malvern Prep and Pellegrini makes a sound that's a cross between a moan of despair and a laugh. "I said to our former offensive coordinator recently, 'Did you always say our starting tackles had problems with Nassib?' "
It was, Pellegrini says, a classic case of foreshadowing.
Back then Nassib—the younger brother of Malvern's standout quarterback—was a tall, skinny backup defensive end for the Friars, who blended in despite his 6' 5", 225-pound frame. On the depth chart, he was behind current Northwestern offensive lineman Connor Mahoney, who played both ways in high school and was a first-team All-Southeastern Pennsylvania defensive selection in 2011. In Nassib's first three years of high school, he played only a handful of snaps for the Friars.
So how did Nassib, now a 6' 7", 272-pound senior defensive end at Penn State, transform into one of the most dominant players in college football? He set up camp in the Nittany Lions' weight room, adding almost 50 pounds of muscle. He ignored doubters who joked that he might be able to keep Penn State players company on the sidelines. And he listened to his mama.
Back in 1980, Mary Fischer-Nassib was a walk-on volleyball player at Villanova, a young woman afforded opportunities because of Title IX. (Her boys consider her the best pure athlete in the family.) Because of her background, she has a special appreciation for all that Carl has accomplished. And with absolute certainty, she knows this: "Walk-ons don't wait for the world to tell them they're good," she says.
They go out and prove it.
As a junior at Malvern in 2009, Nassib was slowed by a knee injury. So it wasn't until the final game of his senior year, against rival St. Joseph's Prep, that he turned heads. That night, Nassib terrorized quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, a Florida football commit and the son of then Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. (Skyler transferred from Florida to Columbia in May, and Marty is now the Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach.) Nassib made five tackles, including 2.5 sacks, for losses of a combined 35 yards, and also broke up a pass.
"Afterward everyone was saying, 'Who's the guy chasing down that hotshot QB?'" recalls Mary.
Most people assumed that football was over for the goofy, energetic late bloomer. Carl's older brother, Ryan, now the backup to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, had already blossomed at Syracuse, and his younger brother, John, now a 6' 7", 260-pound sophomore defensive end at Delaware, was supposed to be the next big thing. His father, Gil, played tight end for the Blue Hens from 1977 to '79, and was a member of their '79 NCAA Division II national championship team. Carl had the genes—theoretically, at least. But he had no FBS offers.
To top it off, his parents were in the middle of splitting up, which Mary says was a challenging and difficult time for the entire family. She and Gil have five children; Carl is their fourth, and when it was his time to go to college, they balked at the idea of sending him to a small liberal arts school where he could play football but would likely be hit with a $25,000 bill each year. Finding the money to send Carl to Penn State seemed more likely. Him making the football team as a walk-on seemed less so.
"Does any high school football player really think their highlight film is gonna work and get them attention?" Carl says now. "You just hope for the best. Not many schools come after a second-string guy. I don't know if I would have gone after me."
But something on the highlight DVD that Nassib sent to then Nittany Lions linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, who recruited the West Chester area, stood out. When Vanderlinden called Pellegrini to inquire about the lanky defensive end who had dominated at the end of the 2010 season, Pellegrini gave him an honest assessment: He wasn't sure what Nassib could do collegiately. But he knew Nassib wouldn't be outworked.
"You get frustrated sometimes as a high school coach because certain college programs have an attitude that players have to be a certain height, certain weight, a certain overall size," Pellegrini says. "And it kills you, because you know the size of the heart—and it usually outweighs everything.
"I think people are still learning [Carl's] upside."
At the very least, quarterbacks have learned that they should try to avoid him.
Two years after being awarded a scholarship by then coach Bill O'Brien—and then having to re-earn it under new coach James Franklin—Nassib leads the country in tackles for loss, with 17.5. He shrugs off the reality of being forced to impress three different coaching staffs. "Proving yourself to the coaches is something every player does," he says. "At this point, I'm not really fazed by change."
When O'Brien put him on scholarship prior to the 2013 season, Nassib originally thought he'd been called into the coach's office because he had yet to pay his fall tuition bill. "I'm walking in there thinking, 'This is awful, I'm supposed to play this year. [The] Syracuse game is coming up and I'm gonna miss it.' " Minutes later he walked out of O'Brien's office and sent a mass text to his family, news that prompted tears from his mother. Carl sums it up: "Just a crazy happy day."
This fall, Nassib is one of the most disruptive players in the nation. His play has been a bright spot for Penn State. The football program was hit with crippling NCAA sanctions in 2012 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Even with a reprieve last year, the Nittany Lions have struggled to find their footing in a changing Big Ten landscape. Penn State might not be the dominant force that it once was, but the Nittany Lions (6–2, 3–1) are bowl eligible after hanging on for a 31–30 win over Maryland last Saturday. Nassib had two tackles-for-loss in the victory.
Nassib says he can't fully describe what it's like to sack a quarterback (his 12.5 sacks are the most in FBS). "All I know is that you have less than 2.5 seconds to get there," he says. "No time to think. It's all reactionary. It's such a hard thing to do, but there's nothing quite like it. Most the time, it's a blur. All I see is red."
Nassib has been remarkably consistent for Penn State, with 2.5 tackles-for-loss in the Nittany Lions' first game, a shocking 27–10 loss to Temple. (The defeat is not such a shocker, now: The undefeated Owls are ranked 21st, and will be hosting College GameDay on Saturday before their game that night against No. 9 Notre Dame.) In the stands that day in Philadelphia, Mary shook her head in amazement.
"I wasn't sobbing or anything, but it was emotional," she says. "I wanted that for him more than anything. I remember thinking, he's only 22 years old and he's worked nine years for this opportunity—that's almost half his life!"
Tired of playing second fiddle to everyone in high school, Carl came home from football one day and told his mom that he wanted to quit. He didn't sign up for brutal weight-room sessions just so he could ride the bench. And he had grown weary of virtually every person in town greeting him by asking about Ryan. Mary recalls one trip with Carl to the orthopedist during which the doctor "barely [glanced] at his knee before saying, 'Hey, how's Ryan doing?' "
Carl holds no ill will toward his big brother, and he and John both acknowledge that Ryan demonstrated what was possible. "Ryan's success was only a help to us," says John, who has eight tackles (2.5 for loss) this season for Delaware. "He showed us what we have to do to get [to the NFL], and he definitely showed us that talent only gets you so far. Hard work pushes you over the top."
Carl is private and humble, and turns down most media requests. But Mary says that her second-youngest son is best described as "fearless." As a kid, Nassib had a habit of correcting his teachers if they misspoke. As a teenager—just weeks after he made the cut for varsity football—he challenged his high school coaches to a rap-off during the ride home from one game. As an adult, he told his family last year that if he had to be away from them during the holidays for a bowl game, he would make it up to them by being "the best." He attacks every task in his life with unrivaled relentlessness.
And now, Penn State fans notice. A few weeks ago, after the Nittany Lions' 29–7 win over Indiana, a fan stopped Nassib on the way to his car. "You're a Penn State guy," the fan told Nassib. To the senior who arrived on campus five years ago with nothing more than a big dream, a "Penn State guy" embodies the hard-working, blue-collar, never-quit, does-everything-the-right-way-on-and-off-the-field attitude adopted by the Nittany Lions decades ago.
He says it's the best compliment he's ever received.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.