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Redshirt frosh rising fast

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- George Howanitz, Archbald (Pa.) Valley View's head coach, just knew.

His former linebacker Nyeem Wartman paced the Beaver Stadium sideline and bobbed his head like a boxer preparing for a title fight. His lips pursed, his brow narrowed, and Howanitz could see the gleam in Wartman's eye -- a look he had grown all too accustomed to in the coal-mining region near Scranton.

Wartman had flipped the switch.

Howanitz turned to his wife, seated next two his two sons wearing blue No. 5 Wartman jerseys, and smiled: "He's going to have a good game."

In Wartman's rookie debut last season, on a sunny opening day against Ohio, the linebacker grabbed the attention of fans and analysts alike. He tore through the middle of the line during an Ohio punt and leaped toward the punter with his left arm held high in the air. Block.

Howanitz just knew. And, from that point on, so did everyone else. Bill O'Brien didn't need to sit in front of reporters, taking swigs from a plastic water bottle between comments, and praise the rookie. It was clear Wartman would have a bright future.

With Ben Kline's offseason shoulder surgery, Wartman is now lining up with the first team this spring. He received a medical redshirt after a knee injury sidelined him in the Week 2 game against Virginia, just a week after that punt block. And he might now be on the unique path of becoming a four-year starter at Linebacker U.

Does it surprise his high school coach at all how quickly ... "No," the 10th-grade biology teacher said. "Not at all.

"We ran a pretty sophisticated defense in high school because our coordinator was a college coach. So when he [Wartman] had his first week at Penn State last year, he told me he thought our defense was harder than Penn State's defense as far as making calls. He's big on film study. Heck, he might be sitting in room right now watching film. He's just good."

Pull aside his teammates, talk to his longtime friends, and it's more of the same. Mike Galantini, now a defensive tackle at Holy Cross, can remember a Saturday night party with about a dozen other Valley View players. Friends took turns playing "Call of Duty," while others chatted in the background.

But, when Wartman received a text message, he stopped all that. He asked to borrow his friend's laptop once he received a notification that the newest film was available on the web. He sat on a couch at the party and stared intently at the screen while breaking down the tape.

"He knew what all 10 guys on the defense were doing," Galantini said. "If someone wasn't sure what they were supposed to be doing, we'd ask back, 'Nyeem, what am I doing again?' And he'd be like, 'Mike, you need get across and go to that gap.'

"He'd call you out when you did something wrong, but he'd pick you right up. He would stay up just to study film. He did a lot of that."

The father of one of Wartman's friends once confused him with a new basketball coach -- as an eighth-grader. "Oh. My. God," that friend, Brian Lalli, remembers his dad saying. And, during high school track meets -- once word leaked out about the hard-hitting athlete who played like a grown man -- Howanitz would watch the crowd because he got such a kick out of college coaches' reactions.

Wartman stood a few inches taller than most of the other runners, and his imposing frame lay in stark contrast with the wiry bodies of his opponents. And he would still beat most of them by a few steps in the 100-meter race.

"I'd just watch the coaches' faces, and it was all the same look and expression," Howanitz said with a laugh. "You'd see them mouth, 'Wow,' kind of turn and then talk into the telephone right away."

Howanitz and his friends knew Wartman was destined for bigger things. So did numerous other colleges. Florida's defensive coordinator excitedly called Wartman's coach to say Wartman was an SEC-kind of linebacker, just the kind of kid the Gators wanted.

Now, at Penn State, he has continued to garner praise. Linebackers Mike Hull and Glenn Carson said the young 'backer was coming along well last week. And Carson said he's excited to see what's in store for Wartman.

A lot of people are. With just two games under his belt, he's a bit of a blue-and-white enigma. His playing style, personality and ability aren't known to many outside his small Penn State circle.

But Lalli and Galantini say the 236-pound redshirt freshman is a calm and relaxed guy, always smiling, joking and making fun of himself. He's the type of person who stopped himself in the middle of his speech as class president after stumbling over his words and just laughed: "Sorry, guys, I can't talk." He's the person who helped Howanitz's children build gingerbread houses.

And he's the kind of linebacker who completely changes once he steps foot on the field. There is no smiling, no joking.

"A lot of the younger kids were afraid to carry the ball and hit him," Galantini said.

Added Lalli, who now plays wideout for Colgate: "It's definitely not fun being hit by Nyeem. He just generates so much power from his lower half. When he makes tackles, he usually ends up with a pretty big crunch with all the fans oohing and ahhing."

Everyone seems to know Wartman's mannerisms before his big games and before hits that made Howanitz sometimes cover his mouth and wince out of concern for the ball carrier. He stops joking, grows quiet and paces. All three mentioned his eyebrows seem to inch closer to his eyes, the smile disappears, and his eyes change.

Those eyes were most difficult to describe. His coach and friends used words like "gleam," "passion," "determination" and "focus." Whatever it is, they said it's unmistakable once you see it.

Howanitz knows he saw it that Sept. 1 day against Ohio, before that punt block. Lalli knows that look -- and that play -- will come time and time again. And Galantini knows, remembering leaping up after that punt block when watching from his Holy Cross dorm, that kind of play is just the beginning.