If asked to guess this summer which Big Ten player would be leading the league in sacks at midseason, you probably would have started with names like Randy Gregory, Shilique Calhoun and Joey Bosa. There is almost no chance you would have said the right answer: Rutgers' Kemoko Turay.
Don't feel too bad, though. Turay's own family can hardly believe he earned a scholarship to Rutgers, much less that he's playing football at all.
The back story for the player who has 5.5 sacks and a national-best three blocked field goals is as unconventional as it gets. Born in the West African country of Guinea, he played one year of organized football -- as a ninth-grader -- before Rutgers offered him a scholarship in the summer of 2012. Now, the redshirt freshman enters this week's game at Ohio State as a feared tormentor of opposing quarterbacks and placekickers.
"It's very overwhelming and quite humbling," said his father, Vakaba Turay.
Turay's parents -- who emigrated to the U.S. when Kemoko was an infant -- didn't want their son to play football. His mother, Fatoumata, thought the game was too dangerous, especially after he hurt his ankle during his first season trying the sport as a ninth-grader at East Orange Campus (N.J.) high school. So they steered him toward basketball, and Turay transferred after his freshman year to a school -- Newark Tech -- that didn't even field a football team.
On the hardwood, he was a 6-foot-6 tweener who drew interest only from Division II and III schools. But Darnell Mangan, who was the football coach at Barringer High School at the time, noticed how Turay was always diving for loose balls and plowing through screens. Mangan approached Turay after one game and told him, "Man, you're playing the wrong sport."
Turay and his parents weren't easily convinced. But Mangan kept working on them. It helped that when Turay joined Newark Tech's track and field squad, the team practiced at Barringer. And Mangan's line coach also moonlighted as an assistant track coach for Turay's team.
The lobbying efforts intensified the summer before Turay's senior year. Mangan told Vakaba Turay, "Just give me six months, and I'll get him a scholarship."
It didn't take nearly that long.
In June 2012, Mangan took Turay to a one-day camp at Temple, where he said Turay blew away Steve Addazio's coaching staff with his speed and measurables. But the Owls weren't ready to offer a scholarship, because they had no tape of this prospect actually playing football.
A week later, Mangan brought Turay to a Rutgers camp. Once again, he did ridiculous things like broad jump more than 10 feet and outrun skill position players in the 40-yard dash. The Scarlet Knights asked Turay to come back the next day, and head coach Kyle Flood drove over in a golf cart to watch him compete in some one-on-one pass rushing drills.
"It took me about 10 minutes to realize he was a little bit different than anybody we had in our program," said Flood, who offered Turay a scholarship on the spot.
Mangan then relayed the news to Turay's father.
"I said, 'Get out of here with that, I have work to do,'" Vakaba Turay said. "I didn't believe it."
Of course, Turay still "didn't have a clue," as Mangan put it, when he suited up for Barringer as a senior. He didn't even know the definition of a sack. But his explosive athleticism -- he won a state title in both the long jump and triple jump -- more than made up for it. Turay led New Jersey with 19 sacks and 28 tackles for loss that season, helping Barringer make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.
Mangan said his prized pupil blossomed because he "had a passion to learn the game." He would study games on YouTube and watch clips of New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, another rangy athlete who became a star pass-rusher despite little background in the game.
Turay needed a redshirt year to catch up to the college game and put on weight -- he is still listed at 235 pounds. But teammates needed no time to see his natural gifts.
"You could tell right from the beginning," senior defensive end David Milewski said. "The way he could bend around a tackle, how low he could get and stay balanced. I can't even try to make the moves that he can. How powerful and how quickly he can do it, it’s just incredible to see."
Rutgers has put his freak skills to great use on the field goal block team, creating some indelible images such as this one. He helped save the Scarlet Knights' 26-24 win against Michigan by turning away a Matt Wile 55-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter.
"I remember seeing a picture of it after, and I remember the guy’s thighs being higher than our offensive linemen," Wile said. "That guy got up pretty high."
As his sacks total indicates, Turay has also excelled in his role as a situational pass-rusher. But he has yet to start a game for Rutgers this season, and still needs to develop into an every-down player who can also stop the run. Flood wants to manage the hype surrounding his young star; Rutgers declined to make Turay available for this story or to any other national outlet, although he is allowed to speak with local reporters.
"He's got all the skills you'd want in an elite pass-rusher," Flood said. "But he's not a finished product by any means."
If a raw Turay can lead the Big Ten in sacks at midseasaon, it's a real mind-bender to imagine what he will become.