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Penn State football: Nittany Lions ‘freak’ defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos becoming a star

Back in June 2015, Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer saw what the future held for Yetur Gross-Matos. Alongside James Franklin and Brent Pry, he watched the promising pass-rusher attack tackling dummies with violence and use his 6-foot-5 frame to cover ground at a satellite camp at Old Dominion. Spencer left the Monarchs’ practice field with one thought in-mind: “He reminded me a lot of Carl Nassib.”

The Nittany Lions offered Gross-Matos a scholarship shortly after, and sure enough, 40 months later, Spencer’s initial comparison is coming true.

Gross-Matos — buoyed by slot receiver speed, overwhelming physicality and a wingspan that’d make most NBA stars jealous — is a budding star. The sophomore defensive end, who has been labeled a “freak” by just about everyone in the Lasch Building, is putting up mind-boggling numbers, tallying 23 tackles, seven tackles for loss and five sacks over the last three weeks.

Against Indiana, Gross-Matos led the Nittany Lions in tackles with 10. A week later, he ripped down Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley for a pair of sacks, beating an offensive line that had allowed just two sacks in its four previous Big Ten games. After Gross-Matos’ superhuman showing against the Hawkeyes, his teammates said they weren’t surprised. Neither was the coaching staff.

“We were excited about Yetur, and we thought he had a chance to make a move this year,” Franklin said Thursday after practice, days from Penn State’s tilt against Wisconsin. “You never know. We’ve expected a lot of guys to make moves. But his production over a two-week period of time was probably as good as I’ve been around at the defensive line position.”

Added Spencer: “I’ve called him a freak before. He’s as close to Carl Nassib as I’ve had here.”

Of course, Gross-Matos’ 2018 stats don’t quite stack up to Nassib’s 2015 run. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass-rusher led college football and broke a Penn State single-season record with 15.5 sacks three years ago. This year, the sophomore has recorded seven quarterback takedowns to go with 13.5 tackles for loss through nine games. But Spencer isn’t necessarily comparing stats; he’s looking at Gross-Matos’ raw skillset and unmatched tangibles.

The coach of the “Wild Dogs” said Gross-Matos has the biggest feet he’s ever seen. Penn State scout team lineman Charlie Shuman noted that the pass-rusher’s ankles “look like most people’s mid-calf or thigh.” Oh, and Gross-Matos runs a 4.52-second 40-yard dash; for perspective, that would have been the No. 1 time by a defensive lineman at the 2018 NFL Combine while besting running backs like Georgia’s Sony Michel and Oregon’s Royce Freeman.

Spencer said since he’s been coaching Division I linemen, he’s “never had a guy run like that.” That’s part of the reason why Gross-Matos was one of three true freshmen to see time for Penn State last season. He didn’t know the defense; Spencer said Gross-Matos simply ran around with a “see ball, get ball” mentality. But the coaching staff couldn’t keep him off the field.

Now, as a first-year starter opposite veteran Shareef Miller, the game has slowed down for Gross-Matos. Spencer said the sophomore “understands the pre-snap read and the big picture.” And he’s doing more than just bull rushing tackles. “He has a huge repertoire that he can go to,” Shuman noted. “If he gets beat on his first move, he has move No. 2, 3 and 4 that can beat you just as well.”

For example, Gross-Matos showed off what’s known as a “hump move” against Iowa. Shooting out of his stance in an outside speed rush, Gross-Matos got Hawkeyes tackle Alaric Jackson off-balance, transitioned into an inside power push, drove through Jackson’s chest with both hands and knocked the midseason All-Big Ten honoree on his behind. Gross-Matos then swallowed Stanley for an 8-yard loss on third down.

The hump move — perfected by Reggie White and adopted by Julius Peppers — isn’t common because, as The Ringer’s Robert Mays noted, “You can count on one hand the number of pass rushers over the past century who’ve had White’s rare blend of speed and power.” To put Gross-Matos in that category now would be crazy. But the sophomore’s 4.52 speed, 6-foot-5 frame and “short-area quickness,” as Spencer called it, has him playing at a complex, elite level in 2018.

Sometimes, like his Iowa hump move, Gross-Matos’ dominance is easily explained. In other instances, well, it’s not.

“Sometimes, Ye just does things, and it doesn’t make sense on the field,” Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. “Like, how did you just do that?”

Added Spencer: “He does freaky things out there.”

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