On Sept. 14, 2012, the Fairfax Rebels piled onto a yellow school bus, leaving McLean High School and heading back home.
A few weeks into their football season, the Rebels picked up an ugly 23-0 win in their first road game of the season. The coaches sat at the front of the bus, decompressing and briefly reviewing the game.
In the middle of discussion, the staff heard a voice and turned around in their seats.
A 17-year-old Nick Scott, who moved to Virginia from Boston a couple months prior, stood there on the brink of tears.
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“Coaches, I just want to let you know how happy I am,” Scott said. “This is the first time I’ve ever rode home from an away game with a win. It’s amazing.”
Running backs coach Matt Hoffert couldn’t believe his ears.
“He was just so happy about that,” Hoffert remembers.
Scott transferred from Brookline High School (Mass.) to Fairfax over the summer, and was making only his third appearance for the Rebels. He didn’t score a touchdown or anything; no insane run, or highlight-reel play. But he was so overcome, so consumed, with the idea of contributing to a winning cause.
Four years later, Scott is the same kind of player for the Nittany Lions. Once recruited as a running back and later molded into a safety, he’s happy wherever he’s at — whatever he can do to help the team he grew up loving.
Everyone knew he could do it. He plays with so much energy, and it’s not only important for the defense but also the secondary specifically. If someone gets him, he’s going to get them back. ... We all knew he would be able to make the transition, no problem.
John Reid, Penn State cornerback
“I expected what we’re all working toward and starting to see now,” Scott said of his expectations when joining Penn State. “I came here to play against top programs as a top program. I take a lot of pride in what we are and what we always have been.”
What Scott has always been is really a Swiss army knife. In his high school career, Scott was a running back, quarterback, wide receiver, safety and kick returner. Wherever he was asked to go, he went, no questions asked.
But before Scott was a high school starlet, he was a kid in Lancaster who, like many in the area, grew up a Penn State fan. Former Penn State wide receiver Corey Jones was a family friend, and in 2008, as a seventh-grader with a piquing interest in football, Scott became infatuated with the Penn State football team that went to the Rose Bowl.
Daryll Clark, Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler, Evan Royster — he could name them all. But his favorite player at the time was Derrick Williams, Penn State’s electric wideout and return man. So of course when Scott saw Williams, now a Big Ten Network correspondent, on the sideline for this season’s home opener against Kent State, he kind of freaked out.
“I was fan-girling a bit,” Scott said, laughing.
It was a surreal moment for Scott. He grew up idolizing players like Williams and there he was, in a Penn State blue and white uniform, on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium. It was his dream at a young age, and he’d do anything to get there.
After making a name for himself at Brookline, garnering a scholarship offer from the school in the neighborhood, Boston College, Scott’s family moved to Virginia. He enrolled at Fairfax and started contributing at running back immediately, racking up 981 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior.
He also made an impact at safety, and by the time his senior year rolled around he was a hot commodity around recruiting. Interest came from Alabama, West Virginia, Nebraska and Maryland, but none of it was what Scott ultimately desired. They all expressed interest in him becoming a defensive back. He wanted to play running back in college.
The only two teams that recruited him for the offensive side of the ball? Penn State and Boston College.
“Which is one of the reasons why I took Penn State so seriously,” Scott said.
During his junior campaign, Scott received a phone call from then-Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in November. He was offered a scholarship in Happy Valley as a tailback. Hoffert, also a teacher at Fairfax, recalls Scott fielding the call in the faculty lounge and walking out of the room beaming.
“He was so excited about that,” Hoffert said. “He was so star-struck.”
Scott was on cloud-nine, and rightfully so for a kid who admired the Nittany Lions as much as he did. But he didn’t let it get to his head.
“Nick had all the talent in the world to be a prima donna,” Hoffert added. “But he had none of that in his personality.”
He showed it on the football field, as well. About a month into Scott’s senior season, Fairfax’s quarterback went down with an injury. The Rebels didn’t really have a backup signal-caller to run their hybrid Wing-T offense, but they did have one of the best athletes in the state.
Scott, who played a little quarterback at Brookline, was removed from his role as running back and thrust into the starting job under-center.
It kind of worked out well, too. With the way Fairfax’s Wing-T was set up, defenses were keying in on Scott as a running back, effectively knowing where he’d run the ball and trying to take him out of games.
At quarterback, he had options.
“We kind of made the wise decision to put the ball in his hands every play,” Hoffert said. “We were doing it on the fly in a week (after the starting quarterback got hurt), but we said, ‘Here’s the passing game. It’s going to be one read for you. If there’s nothing there, then run.’ That was pretty much the offense, and he dominated.”
As a senior, Scott totaled 1,582 rushing yards, 511 passing yards, and 25 touchdowns. After playing so many positions in high school, Scott was primed to be a difference-maker at one position at Penn State — running back.
But all told, he didn’t do much as a ball-carrier. Scott redshirted his first year at Penn State in 2014, and last season, he made one start and recorded 30 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown.
At the end of the campaign, Scott kind of saw the writing on the wall. He started to mull over the possibility of switching positions.
“How the season went last year, I felt that it would be the best move for me as far as contributing a little bit more to the team,” Scott said. “I mean, you’ve got a guy like No. 26 (Saquon Barkley). He’s a special guy that only comes to schools here and there. I thought it was a great opportunity to take advantage of that.”
He came to Penn State to play running back because schools across the country only wanted him as a defensive back, and here he was making the switch to the defensive side of the ball.
“It was always in the back of my mind, the possibility,” Scott admitted.
But he was fine with it. There wasn’t pride to swallow or embarrassment. He just wanted to get on the field.
So after former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was chirping in his ear last season about moving to safety, Scott obliged. He called Penn State head coach James Franklin shortly after Shoop left for Tennessee in January. Franklin had no idea Scott was thinking about switching positions.
“He was kind of surprised,” Scott said, smiling.
But Franklin was open to the idea, and from that point forward, Scott committed himself to the defensive side of the ball. In the offseason, he’d work with safeties Marcus Allen and Malik Golden and cornerbacks Jordan Smith and Grant Haley; in high school, Scott relied on his reaction skills, not footwork, at safety.
“Those guys really took me under their wing,” Scott said, thankfully.
His roommate, wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, also helped. Scott said the two would wake up at 8 a.m. in the summer, head over to Holuba Hall, and Blacknall, a 6-foot-3 imposing force, would work him one-on-one.
With time, he learned more and more.
“Everyone knew he could do it,” Penn State cornerback John Reid said. “He plays with so much energy, and it’s not only important for the defense but also the secondary specifically. If someone gets him, he’s going to get them back. ... We all knew he would be able to make the transition, no problem.”
So far, he’s still growing into the defensive side of the ball, a work in progress. In the meantime, he’s proving to be a significant force on special teams. Scott has five tackles this year — and perhaps the biggest crowd-igniting, non-Joey Julius blowup belongs to him.
If momentum wasn’t already in Penn State’s favor at the time against Maryland on Oct. 8, Scott was there to fully swing it in the Nittany Lions’ direction.
With two minutes to go in the first half at Beaver Stadium, Will Likely, the Terrapins’ dynamic returner, fielded a punt at Penn State’s 43-yard line.
“It was a short punt,” Scott remembers. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh crap, I’ve got to get over there.’ ”
The ball bounced right into Likely’s arms, and Penn State special teamers Garrett Taylor and Tyler Yazujian kept Likely from cutting back, forcing him to the Maryland sideline.
“That’s where we happened to meet,” Scott said, swaying in his chair and throwing his head back with a huge grin.
Scott bolted toward Likely and crushed the 5-foot-7 senior, sending him flying. It was a perfectly legal hit, one that caused a scuffle on the field and a major reaction from the Beaver Stadium crowd.
“When you hit somebody like that, you don’t actually feel the hit because of all the force applied,” Scott explained from his perspective. “Your only notification of how hard you hit him was the crowd’s reaction. When I heard the crowd’s reaction, I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I must’ve lit him up a little bit.’ ”
Reid laughed when asked about the hit.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised he made that hit,” the sophomore said. “He’s always trying to lay people out.”
Scott’s old coach, Hoffert, was there, too. He was sitting in Section WG, 20 rows up. The hit happened right in front of him.
“I was flipping out,” the 2001 Penn State graduate said. “I’m there with my wife, and surrounded by strangers, and I’m just yelling, ‘I know that kid, I know that kid.’ It was awesome.”
It was memorable for Scott, as well.
Things haven’t necessarily gone the way Scott originally planned. As a kid cheering on the 2008 Rose Bowl-bound Nittany Lions and later a high school playmaker, he envisioned himself running through and around defenses, becoming the next Royster.
Three years ago, Scott wouldn’t ever have expected that his biggest play as a Nittany Lion would be a hit on special teams.
But that’s how it worked out, and he couldn’t be happier.
In whatever capacity needed, Scott is making plays for his childhood team.
And the hit on Likely — a moment showcasing his play-by-play, year-by-year transformation as a player — is one he’ll cherish for a long time.
“For any defensive player, that’s the dream hit,” Scott said with a wide smile. “Those opportunities only come a number of times, and when they do, you have to be ready.”
He was ready then, and he’ll continue to be prepared for whatever the rest of his career throws at him.
Penn State vs. Iowa Game Day Breakdown
Who: No. 12 Penn State (6-2, 4-1) vs. Iowa (5-3, 3-2)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Penn State leads 13-12
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Pressure the passer. Penn State fed off the White Out crowd a few weeks ago, sacking Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett six times. The Nittany Lions will look to do the same to Iowa senior quarterback C.J. Beathard.
For Iowa: Set the tone. The Hawkeyes do not want to get in a shootout with Penn State. Iowa has scored only 23.4 points per game against Big Ten teams this season, and would like to make it a slugfest (see: Iowa’s 17-9 loss to Wisconsin).
Nittany Lion to watch: John Reid. The Nittany Lions have four interceptions in their past four games — but Reid hasn’t had one since Sept. 17 against Temple. Perhaps the cornerback will make another big play against the Hawkeyes.
Hawkeye to watch: Akrum Wadley. Iowa’s junior tailback is a true boom-or-bust player. Wadley hung 176 rushing yards on 15 carries against Purdue, but only had 44 against Wisconsin two weeks ago.