Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories that will profile each of the players in Penn State's Class of 2012. You can read the previous stories below.
Nyeem Wartman didn't become a linebacker until the end of his sophomore season.
Mike Brennan had only coached Nyeem Wartman for a couple of Big 33 practices. But he had seen enough to form at least one conclusion about the Valley View linebacker.
"When he hits people, the pile stops," Brennan said.
The Ohio all-stars will put that assessment to the test on Saturday night when they take on Wartman and the Pennsylvania team in the 55th annual Big 33 Football Classic in Hershey.
Maybe the player least impressed with Wartman's wood-laying abilities, though, is Wartman himself.
"I was always told to follow through with your feet and people tell me my hits don't hurt, they just look like they hurt," he said. "It's just form tackles. Just wrap him up, face in his chest. If that's considered a big hit, I don't know. I've had a few big hits, but I don't think I'm known as a big hitter."
The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Wartman looks at home on a football field, a natural blend of power and speed who is quick enough to track down a running back and big enough to blow past a lineman. But his movements on the field, he said, are not second nature.
"I'm out of that phase where you close your eyes and you tackle people," he said. "I'm still getting used to it, just because there's lots more I got to learn. Lots more."
That's because Wartman didn't start playing organized football until his freshman season. He didn't start playing linebacker until the end of his sophomore year. One of 12 children, Wartman didn't play any organized sports while growing up in Philadelphia. He attended the Independence Charter School, which did not field athletic teams, until the eighth grade. That's when his stepfather took a construction job in Scranton.
The boy who had never had an opportunity to play football suddenly had one.
"I knew about the sport, I'd just never played it," he said.
It took him a couple of years to get his footing, but Wartman blossomed relatively rapidly. After finishing his sophomore year with 66 tackles, he saw that total explode to 115 his junior season, his first as a full-time linebacker, then replicated that number as a senior. Florida, Illinois, Boston College, N.C. State and Pitt were among those who extended scholarship offers, but Wartman chose Penn State last summer.
Meanwhile, football wasn't the only sport he found success in. Wartman also ran the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4X100 relay at Valley View, turning in top times of 10.9 seconds in the 100 and 23.0 in the 200.
Track speed and football speed are two different things, especially at a position like linebacker, but Wartman believes his time on the track helped him on the field.
"It's a confidence booster," he said, "because if you've got to go up against a receiver, you're know you're not that much slower than him. You can get your hands on him, and that 4.4 (40 speed) turns into a 4.7 or a 4.8 and you're OK, you're fine."
Not too many players ran away from Wartman during his high school career, but he wanted to see how he measured up against tougher competition during Big 33 week.
"Just seeing how I compete against the other kids in PA," he said, "and then see how I compete against other kids from another state, just seeing where I lie in this game. Will I have an impact or not?"
Wartman has been the "adjuster" for the Pennsylvania squad this week. If fellow linebacker Jon Hicks (Palmyra, UConn) is in the game, Wartman will play on the outside. If not, he'll play on the inside. He filled a similar role at Valley View, though he believes he'll likely begin his Penn State career at one of the outside spots.
He knows he still has some growing to do no matter where he ends up, even if he has come a long way in a short amount of time.
"I'm not one to talk up my game or talk down my game," Wartman said. "I've been making mistakes and I've been doing good things, so I think I'm doing fine right now."
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