Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 9 of the 17-day series.
Jonathan Sutherland, then a 12-year-old quarterback with “mini dreads” from Ottawa, caught the eye of one person in particular at a Pop Warner game in 2010.
Victor Tedondo — the owner of Gridiron Academy, an Ontario institution known for molding and showcasing young Canadian football players — approached Sutherland’s father along the sidelines.
“Your son is going to be special,” Tedondo said of the incoming Penn State safety.
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And that was the start of Sutherland’s meteoric rise.
Sutherland is an instinctive, bruising safety — and plenty of schools noticed it. The four-star prospect had scholarship offers from 21 schools, including Michigan, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Sutherland created that attention on his own with his play at camps and combines in the U.S. — but first he needed that opportunity, something that doesn’t come around often for Canadian football players.
Thanks to Gridiron Academy’s exposure, a perfect situation in America and his ability to prove his worth, Sutherland went from an obscure Ottawan to a star on college coaches’ radars.
“The hardest thing for us here in Canada is to get kids to buy in and believe in the process,” Tedondo said. “Jonathan bought in from the get-go.”
Sutherland still remembers that Pop Warner game Tedondo attended.
Playing for the North Glouchester Giants, he and his backfield mate — Luiji Vilain, now a four-star defensive end signed with Michigan — toted the ball up and down the field with relative ease.
And Tedondo was impressed.
“You know when you see a kid and he has that ‘it’ factor,” Tedondo said of Sutherland. “When you see kids play for the first time, you can really tell how they go about things. You see the way he took every single snap and what type of leader he was. He was just 12 years old, right? But I was able to see it.”
After Tedondo spoke with Sutherland’s father, he asked the playmaker a few questions after the game. The most important one, of course, was, “Do you want to join the Gridiron?”
Sutherland didn’t hesitate.
“That’s something that I knew would take me to the next level,” the Pop Warner star said. “I was in. One-hundred percent.”
At 12 years old, Sutherland knew he wanted to play college football in America. But he didn’t grow up in Happy Valley, Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee, and he didn’t have a favorite program.
Heck, Sutherland didn’t even have cable to watch games on Saturday afternoons.
But the youngster had EA Sports’ NCAA Football 09 on Xbox 360, and he wanted the opportunity to be in an NCAA game himself.
That’s where Gridiron came in.
The academy, founded in 2007, focuses on all aspects of preparing Canadian players for college football: speed, strength, academics, work ethic, etc. But the biggest advantage is exposure.
“They gave him the experience of knowing what the competition was like south of the border,” Sutherland’s father, Everton, said. “You have to make it in the United States.”
Sutherland quickly learned how hard that actually was.
In seventh grade, he competed on a 7-on-7 team at quarterback with Michael O’Connor, a signal-caller three years older who ended up at Penn State before transferring. In eighth grade, he kept facing older competition — including former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith and Ohio State wide receiver Austin Mack.
The game in America was bigger and faster than Sutherland had ever seen.
“We threw him in the water,” Tedondo said, “and he was forced to swim.”
And soon enough, Sutherland no longer needed a lifevest.
By time he was a high school freshman at age 15, Sutherland had an offer from Rutgers and visited Penn State, Michigan State and Syracuse.
Sutherland adjusted to the speed of the game, made a name for himself at camps in the United States and attracted plenty of preliminary interest.
It was time for the next step. He had to attend an American high school, and the choice was Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.
Just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., Episcopal — a boarding school with students from 30 states and 20 countries — made sense for Sutherland. Gridiron products had played there before, and he went there with academy friends Vilain and Patrice Rene, who now plays cornerback for North Carolina.
The only problem was the distance. His home in Ottawa was 600 miles away.
“The transition took time,” Sutherland’s father said. “He was leaving home and going away at such a young age. But the adjustment was endured because of the exposure to traveling so often. ... It got him used to being away from home.”
Said Sutherland: “I took it as a perfect opportunity to better my game.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Sutherland earned all-state first-team honors as a junior and senior, and was named the 2016 Interstate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Maroon to an 8-1 record and IAC championship.
Sutherland’s long journey — from Pop Warner in Canada to high school in Virginia — all culminated on Feb. 1, when he signed his National Letter of Intent to play for the Nittany Lions. He even had a couple of unexpected visitors at school that day — his parents drove down from Ottawa to watch Sutherland fax his NLI over to James Franklin.
“That was pretty breathtaking,” the safety said. “I love them so much for that.”
Added Sutherland’s father: “It’s a milestone in his life. It’s part of that support.”
From the time Tedondo approached Sutherland’s father at that 2010 Pop Warner game to National Signing Day, the safety always had that structure, that foundation for growth.
Gridiron Academy’s exposure helped the budding Canadian get recognized. Episcopal High School’s football fit was conducive to success. Everton and Sylvie Sutherland’s reinforcement provided a backbone.
And the future Nittany Lion took advantage of it all.
Whether it was shining as a 13-year-old quarterback or drilling DMV wideouts as an imposing safety, Sutherland flourished and accomplished his childhood goal of playing college football.
“The next step is to go into Penn State and compete,” Sutherland said. “I’m going to get my degree, and then hopefully take my game to the next level after that.”
Overview of Jonathan Sutherland
Hometown/high school: Ottawa, Ontario/Episcopal (Va.)
Height/weight: 5-foot-11/191 pounds
Position: Defensive back
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (ESPN, Rivals, Scout); 3 stars (247)
Other scholarship offers: Boston College, Iowa State, Louisville, Maryland, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest, Wisconsin
Ass’t coach Terry Smith says: “Sutherland is a guy that brings some physicality. He’s much like Marcus (Allen), he’s not as big as Marcus but he can tackle and be physical like Marcus. But, we think he can be a really good cover guy as well on the back end of the safety position.”