Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Next Big Thing

By Neil Bright

The first recollection most sports fans have of Jason Pierre-Paul was a YouTube video of a 6'5", 270-pound football player doing 14 consecutive backflips in full pads. Going viral shortly before the NFL draft, the video initially viewed more than 500,000 times quickly became a sensation. At that time, the only question was not whether the extraordinary athlete was more a Barnum and Bailey acrobat than the next big thing in the National Football League.

Drafted by the New York Giants in 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul was hardly a sure thing. The son of Haitian immigrants had never even played organized football until his senior year in high school when a serious leg injury forced him to replace his hardwood aspirations for gridiron glory.

With grades an issue and not recruited by any major colleges, Pierre-Paul played at the College of the Canyons in California as a freshman and the following year at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. Hardly high-profile football factories, he received little national attention. In fact, his only acclaim occurred at Fort Scott where he became something of a local folk hero.

Sustaining a neck injury during a game and immobilized on a gurney, he was rushed by ambulance to a hospital. Reappearing in the second half with a doctor's note and "put me back in" pleas, he returned to the field breaking two fingers and collecting three sacks in the process. After winning the game, his dumbfounded coach commented "amazing" as little more than what others were already thinking.

After two seasons playing JUCO ball, he transferred in 2009 to the University of South Florida. Arriving on campus two weeks after leaving Fort Scott and missing some practices, he wouldn't start at defensive end until the sixth game of the season. However, what he lacked in playing time he more than made up in impact.

In only his second game starting, a win over Florida State, he burst onto the national scene with 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, a forced fumble, and two quarterback pressures. At season's end, he was named an All-Conference Big East selection and a first team All-American by Pro Football Weekly. Yet in foregoing his final year of eligibility after having played only two months of major college football, conventional wisdom on the eve of the scouting combine still saw him more as Clark Kent than as Superman.

Despite his 35-inch arms, his 81-inch wingspan, and the NFL Network's Rich Eisen gushing "The Legend Continues" after JPP's nearly scatback-fast 4.67 seconds in the combine's 40-yard dash, many saw the "Haitian Sensation" as more style than substance. And when the Giants picked him in the first round of the NFL draft, the doubts grew even louder.

Already stocked with quality defensive ends and coveting linebackers, Giant fans pointed to Pierre-Paul's lack of top-flight collegiate experience as reason to voice "draft bust" predictions. With his pedestrian showing in the combine's bench press test and Derrick Morgan the ACC Defensive Player of the Year still available when JPP was selected, one scribe wrote, "It's hard to see the ... pick as anything other than buying a 55" flatscreen when your fridge is down to pickled watermelon rind and a flat bottle of Fanta."

Even those having little doubt about Pierre-Paul's size, speed, strength, and determination had questions as to how long it would take him to put them all together. And for those so concerned, the answer would be less than a season.

Insisting that Pierre-Paul had "the biggest upside in the draft," Giant GM Jerry Reese also conceded his extraordinarily athletic rookie "had limited background." When defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was asked what JPP did not know that others playing organized football for years knew, he chuckled, "We don't have that long." And without years of practice and film study allowing players to master a professional-level playbook and to react on the field without thinking, Pierre-Paul himself acknowledged a lack of experience "was holding me back."

Without a sack for the first 10 games of the season, even defensive captain Justin Tuck began doubting the wisdom of drafting Pierre-Paul so highly. "In the beginning, he was kind of a goofball. He didn't take things as seriously as we would have liked ... [and] there were times I was thinking maybe we made a mistake with that 15th pick." Then in November after defensive line coach Robert Nunn told JPP that he needed to be the star of the game against the Jaguars, things started to change.

Two sacks against Jacksonville were followed by an equal number against Washington. In recording consecutive two sack games, Pierre-Paul became the first NFL rookie since 2006 to accomplish this feat and the first Giant in history to do so. By season's end, his play had erased whatever draft bust skepticism remained.

And if the eyeball test didn't silence naysayers, comparing Pierre-Paul's statistics to the other defensive ends taken in the first round of the 2010 draft surely did so. For in part-time duty, his 2 forced fumbles and 4.5 sacks were equal to the totals for Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, and Jerry Hughes, while his 30 tackles were more than those players combined.

Beginning this year where last season left off, Pierre-Paul produced 2 sacks, 6 tackles, and a forced fumble in a loss to Washington. And what he started against the Redskins has continued. Averaging more than a sack a game through midseason, Pierre-Paul is among the league leaders. What had been flashes of brilliance as a rookie is now far more than that. And when asked about how many sacks he was capable of in 2011, he replied, "unlimited ... I want to get them all."

With little more than a full season playing experience, it is difficult to know how good Jason Pierre-Paul can become. Once considered a high-risk, high-reward prospect, he still is "trying to figure out how high I can get." But more than anything else in describing his upside, teammates, coaches, and media types use the word "freakish."

Indeed, he most often is likened to Jevon "The Freak" Kearse who set the rookie sack record in 1999. But for the "the next big thing" perhaps there is an even better comparison to a retired gap-toothed lineman who also produced 4.5 sacks in his first full season. When drafted by the Giants in 1993, some also considered him a questionable pick. And even without backflips, in wearing No. 92, in playing defensive end for 15 years, and in setting the single-season sack record, we all know how that "high-risk" draft pick turned out.

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