Jonathan Sutherland didn’t hesitate or simply try to bottle up Indiana’s J-Shun Harris. Last weekend, Sutherland went full speed, his dreadlocks flying wildly as he launched himself through the Big Ten’s best punt returner and forced a fumble.
James Franklin used that play to describe Sutherland — the newest and perhaps most pivotal playmaker on Penn State’s defense.
“That’s kind of who he is,” Franklin said. “Most guys will come under control and chatter their feet and get their hips underneath them and then make the tackle. With Sutherland, he’s more like a missile. He just goes.”
The Nittany Lions will need Sutherland running at full tilt against Iowa. Starting safety Garrett Taylor, who picked up a targeting penalty in the third quarter of Penn State’s 33-28 win over Indiana, will miss the first half on Saturday. That means Sutherland, a redshirt freshman, will make his first career start.
It’s a highly-anticipated, first-team debut, too. The Penn State coaching staff has raved about Sutherland since he arrived in Happy Valley.
Last November, when the hard-hitter was redshirting and making a name for himself on the scout team, safeties coach Tim Banks said Sutherland was “purpose-driven” and had “a bright future.” In April, defensive coordinator Brent Pry told the CDT that “this kid is going to reach his full potential, and then some.” And just last week, before Sutherland was forcibly called into action with Taylor’s ejection, Franklin talked about the staff’s desire to get him more playing time.
Well, now Sutherland’s time is here.
“I think I’m really prepared,” the Ottawa native said Wednesday. “The coaches know exactly what they’re going to get out of me when the game comes because I play things in practice the same way in games.”
In that case, the Hawkeyes better keep their heads on a swivel. After Saturday’s game, linebacker Cam Brown dropped an interesting nugget: Sutherland’s nickname is “The Assassin.” When asked about that Tuesday, cornerback Amani Oruwariye said Franklin came up with it and noted that it was an apt moniker. “He’s a guy who keeps his head down and works and attacks everything like an assassin would,” the defensive back said. Makes sense for a guy who grew up admiring Pittsburgh Steelers legend Troy Polamalu.
Ironically, Sutherland, who made seven tackles in Bloomington, has been compared to a different Steelers safety: Former Penn State fan favorite Marcus Allen. A four-year starter who sits fifth on the program’s all-time tackles chart, Allen was known as an unrelenting, durable hitter. NFL scouts considered him as a sub-package linebacker with reason. So for Sutherland to draw that kind of praise, without even making a start yet, is telling.
“I think his game and Marcus Allen’s game are very similar in a lot of ways,” Franklin reiterated. “As he continues to get more confident, I think you’re going to see him be even more aggressive. I think you’re going to see him be more violent.”
Of course, there are natural concerns with a first-time starter at safety. Sutherland and Nick Scott are the last line of defense, and as Franklin said, “If you’re wrong on the back end, it’s going to be a long day.”
That’s especially true against Iowa, a team led by junior quarterback Nate Stanley and arguably the best tight end tandem in college football. Noah Fant is a projected first-round pick, and T.J. Hockenson’s 424 yards leads the Hawkeyes. Those two tight ends won’t come off the field, and Iowa does a nice job of mixing things up — splitting them out wide, etc. The onus will be on Scott and middle linebacker Jan Johnson to align Penn State’s base 4-3 defense properly, but Sutherland needs to know what he’s doing at all times.
That’s why it’s worth watching Sutherland come Saturday. He could be the key to locking Iowa down. He could be the difference in a Penn State win or loss, a result that could send the Nittany Lions’ season one of two ways. And if “The Assassin” shows out, Sutherland might be in-line for a larger role as 2018 progresses.
“He likes to hit, and he plays fast and crazy every play,” Brown said with a laugh. “I can’t expect anything less than that.”