- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
South Florida defensive line coach Kevin Patrick was on a recruiting trip to see Jason Pierre-Paul last year when the prized prospect surprised him.
"Hey, coach, look at this," Pierre-Paul yelled to Patrick after practice. Then the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder pulled off a standing backflip -- in full pads and helmet.
"It was," Patrick says now, "the most impressive thing I've ever seen in my life."
Pierre-Paul is impressing a lot of people these days with his unique blend of skills. In just his fourth Division I game, the junior-college transfer won Big East defensive player of the week honors by recording a sack, a forced fumble and three tackles for loss in a 17-7 win at Florida State.
What's amazing -- and scary for future opponents -- is that Pierre-Paul is like a newborn in a grown man's body. Right now, he's getting by on pure athletic ability, of which he has plenty in reserve.
"I'm not even near to playing good football yet," Pierre-Paul said. "I'm still learning the whole system right now. I'm still out there thinking, 'What if I make a big mistake?'"
You'd never guess it by the way he played in Tallahassee, but this whole football thing is still sort of new to him.
Pierre-Paul's parents, Jean and Marie, emigrated to Florida from Haiti 26 years ago. Jean Pierre-Paul went blind when Jason was still an infant. The only football his family knew was soccer.
Pierre-Paul never played the sport until joining his Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High School team for a playoff game his junior year. Before that, he had played basketball, but he broke his leg three different times growing up -- the last time dunking a basketball. Neither he nor his mother were thrilled about him playing football.
"There was a lot of pressure on him to play, and I don't think he liked being in pain," said his sister, Nadie Pierre-Paul.
Pierre-Paul nearly quit before deciding to play his senior year, then signed with Central Florida. But his grades weren't in order, so he wound up going to two junior colleges, piling up nearly 25 sacks in two seasons. Along the way, his enthusiasm for the sport grew.
During one game at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, Pierre-Paul injured his neck while making a hit and was taken to the hospital. Even as the technicians cut off his helmet and put him through an MRI, Pierre-Paul kept asking if he could go back and play. After he cleared all the tests, he got a ride to the stadium, showed the medical paperwork to his coaches and talked his way back into the game.
His list of college suitors read like a who's who of college football: Florida, LSU, Georgia, Nebraska, Arkansas, among others. Most schools, though, wanted him to spend another semester in junior college to shore up his grades. South Florida said he could play this year if he finished his requirements, and his sister urged him to come back home.
Pierre-Paul had to complete 18 hours of coursework during the summer to get eligible, taking the final two classes online at home. He missed the first two weeks of South Florida training camp.
"It took me a good minute to get back into shape," he said. "It was tough, because everybody else knew all the plays."
South Florida coach Jim Leavitt told people in the preseason that it would probably take about five games before Pierre-Paul was ready to contribute in a serious way. Instead, he got his first start in Week 3 against Charleston Southern.
"The best thing about Jason is his attitude and demeanor and the way he approached all of it," Leavitt said. "More so than I would have expected."
Combine that attitude with Pierre-Paul's astounding physical gifts, and the Bulls really have something. He runs like a linebacker and has a wing span of 6 feet, nine inches.
"Just the span from his elbow to the tips of his fingers is longer than my arm," Patrick said. "He was kind of raw and all over the place when he got here. But now he's sharpening his tools. He's starting to execute without so much of a spastic motion."
And as Pierre-Paul continues to improve, that makes life difficult for opposing offensive lines. That's because two-time All-American defensive end George Selvie waits on the other side and can't be so easily double-teamed any more. In the Florida State game, Patrick said he was surprised to see the Seminoles actually using an extra blocker to chip Pierre-Paul instead of Selvie.
"What a complement it is for George to have Jason, and for Jason to have George," Patrick said.
Pierre-Paul isn't embracing any compliments this week, despite his big game and Big East award. The breakout performance just showed him what he was capable of doing once he learns the finer points of the game.
"I just know now that I've got to be better," he said, "and show everybody what I can do."