Joe Paterno and other Penn State coaches told Devon Still last season that he needed to assert his leadership. The defensive tackle was a little reluctant to do so, knowing he was only a junior and that other teammates had already been elected captains for the 2010 season.
But once the Outback Bowl arrived, Still decided that was his time to take over. While the Nittany Lions lost to Florida on New Year's Day, Still looked like a new man. He had a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss in that game and hasn't really slowed down since.
"I feel like a light clicked for me," he told ESPN.com this week. "I looked over my season and felt like I had been real inconsistent. I wanted to focus on being dominant every game. I focused on that going into the bowl game so I could hit the ground running this season."
Still has hit a lot of things this season, mostly quarterbacks and running backs. He's a big reason why Penn State has one of the top defenses in the country, continually blowing up plays in the middle of the line of scrimmage. The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder has 10 tackles for loss and two sacks through seven games, building a strong case for Big Ten defensive MVP honors.
"He's a big, imposing guy," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team managed only one field goal against the Nittany Lions in a 13-3 loss. "Every time you see Penn State on cutups, he's typically showing up. He's got great size, he's very active and he's a tough guy to handle one-on-one."
Still has always had impressive physical gifts. But he had trouble staying healthy early in his career. He tore his ACL in what would have been his true freshman season, then broke his ankle in fall camp the following year. He returned that year for the regular-season finale. Still says he didn't get used to playing full-time until last season.
What really has changed for him, though, is his drive. Still and his girlfriend had a daughter, Leah, 18 months ago. That increased responsibility in his personal life carried over onto the football field.
"I know I have to do things so my daughter will look up to me, and I have to set the same example for my teammates," he said. "It's just knowing that I'm trying to be successful not only for myself but in order to support my family. When I go out there on the field, I just think of her and I try to play as hard as I can."
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley noticed a difference in Still's approach after Leah was born.
"He knows there's a responsibility on his shoulders not only on the field but off it," Bradley said. "He's done a great job of managing both. He comes to practice every day with a purpose."
Every opposing offensive coach notices Still, too. He's the first player they have to account for if they want any chance of scoring on Penn State, which is allowing just 11.8 points per game this season. Predictably, Still has seen near constant double-teams in recent weeks.
"At the beginning of the season, I don't think teams paid so much attention to me and I was able to make big plays," he said. "Now, a lot of teams are scheming against me. I'm seeing a lot of trap blocks, because they're trying to get me up the field and out of the play."
That's keeping Still away from the quarterback more, and he knows he can't just try to bust through the line of scrimmage recklessly. But as he's occupying two blockers, he's freeing up teammates such as Jordan Hill and Jack Crawford to make plays. And that's just fine with him.
"As long as we keep playing the style of defense we've been playing, I'm happy," he said.
Still will have a different challenge this week at Northwestern. The Wildcats have two mobile quarterbacks in Dan Persa and Kain Colter who can elude pressure. They also play an up-tempo style that often prevents defenses from subbing on the defensive line. Those 300-pounders can tire out against a no-huddle. Still saw that earlier this year against Indiana and says he and Hill are doing extra conditioning work this week to get ready for the test.
The real burden, however, falls on Northwestern to find a way to deal with Still.
"He's probably impacted 40 or 50 plays where his ability to get up the field has caused just complete and total chaos in the backfield," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We hope we can find a way to get him blocked. Nobody has blocked him yet, watching him on tape. And that's the hallmark of a great player."