Jason Cabinda didn’t choose the old-school neck roll life. The neck roll life chose him.
“I used to get a decent amount of stingers,” Cabinda said with a grin, leaning back in an office chair at the Lasch Football Building. “I just like wearing it. It works for me. ... A lot of people like it.”
Coming from a fan base steeped in tradition, that makes sense. The iconic look made popular in Happy Valley by Shane Conlan, Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor fits for Cabinda — the heartbeat of Penn State’s defense the past few years.
Since stepping into a prominent role, Cabinda has been a model member of Linebacker U.
When he leapt over Iowa’s offensive line a year ago, meeting quarterback C.J. Beathard at the line of scrimmage and stopping the Hawkeyes on fourth-and-1, Cabinda stirred memories of LaVar Arrington.
When he ripped J.T. Barrett down for a decisive sack in Penn State’s upset of Ohio State, it was as if NaVorro Bowman was back on the field.
His entire Penn State career, Cabinda — who has 250 career tackles and counting — has been a constant presence. He’s around the ball sideline-to-sideline. Off the field, No. 40 is that go-to mentor for his fellow linebackers.
“When you talk to him, you just love what he’s about and what he represents,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “If we’re playing backyard football, he’d be one of the first guys I’d pick. Is he the fastest? No. Is a guy that’s going to test off the charts? Not necessarily. But there’s something about him as the key to the defense, the quarterback of the defense.”
Added defensive coordinator Brent Pry: “I think he embodies Linebacker U. I really do.”
As it stands, Cabinda is just outside the top 15 on Penn State’s all-time tackling list — but the top 5 is within reasonable reach.
Cabinda, who racked up 81 tackles in just nine games in 2016, has 52 through seven this season. Averaging around 7.5 per contest, he’s on pace to come just short of Mike Hull at No. 6 over a six-game span. But if Penn State makes it to a Big Ten title game and/or the College Football Playoff, Brian Gelzheiser at No. 5 better watch out.
Should Cabinda rise into the top 5, he’d have more tackles than the likes of Conlan, Dennis Onkotz, Brandon Short, Glenn Carson and Trey Bauer.
Cabinda admitted it’s a little crazy to be in that conversation at all. He feels honored to hear the hype and is appreciative of the acclaim. “To even be compared is already enough,” he said.
But the Hunterdon Central prospect, an eager kid from south Jersey, picked Penn State back in 2013 for the possibility of this one day becoming reality. He’s understood the legacy of Linebacker U all along.
“It’s one of the reasons why I committed here, why I came here,” Cabinda said, leaning forward in his seat. “Being able to uphold a tradition and know that this is a kind of place that the best linebackers are developed and go to the NFL. You see it time and time again. NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Mike Mauti, Gerald Hodges — doing big things in the league after doing big things here. It means a lot, and it’s an integrity type of thing.”
When he moves on after this season, he may not be remembered like Jack Ham, Sean Lee and the rest. But from the moment he stepped on-campus, Cabinda’s been inching toward Nittany Lion linebacker lore. Before he even became a captain, before he ever became the voice of Penn State’s defense, the ’backer was forced to step up quickly.
Cabinda, who enrolled as a freshman in June 2014, was a second-string outside linebacker by the second week of training camp. He appeared in nine games with one start as a freshman, but his impact was really felt the following year.
In the 2015 season opener against Temple — which the Nittany Lions lost 27-10 — starting “Mike” linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cabinda was forced into filling that role.
“I had never taken any Mike reps at all,” Cabinda said. “I had just gotten the Will position down, and I felt comfortable there and I had the playbook down. My feet were settled in. Then I had to move to a position that I hadn’t even played it in practice before. It just felt like you were going back to square one.”
Nothing felt normal inside the Sunday film review. But over the next week, Cabinda spent hours watching film of Wartman-White and Hull, meticulously studying how both guys operated. Barking out calls. Lining his teammates up. Working comfortably within the box and reading plays.
It was a lot to take in. But Cabinda exceeded expectations; he went on to lead the team with 100 tackles that season.
“There couldn’t have been anyone more perfect for the situation at-hand,” Wartman-White said. “He was like a sponge, a sponge mixed with Curious George.”
Added Cabinda: “That’s when I realized it was my defense.”
And ever since then, he’s run with it.
On the statsheet, Cabinda’s impact has been obvious. He has seven double-digit tackle games in his career. In 2016, he came back from injury and tallied 13 in Penn State’s win over the Buckeyes. After racking up 12 last weekend against Michigan, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see him do it again in The Shoe on Saturday.
But it’s not just the plays he’s made over the years that makes Cabinda special. It’s how he’s directed the defense for 28 games and 26 months.
On the field, Cabinda’s in your face. He’s making sure everyone is ready for what’s coming. He’s the rock and security blanket for a unit that bends and doesn’t break.
“Bright eyes, loud, not yelling at everybody but making sure everyone’s right. Energetic. High tenacity,” former teammate Brandon Bell said, when asked how to describe playing alongside Cabinda. “The eyes — people always talk about the eyes — the eyes say it all.”
Senior cornerback Grant Haley called him a “powerful person on the defense,” in a two-fold sense: In Beaver Stadium and at the Lasch Football Building.
With Cabinda, what might be more talked about than his play is his leadership and mentorship outside the confines of the sidelines.
College GameDay host Rece Davis said Herbstreit has a “bromance” with Cabinda for a reason. Without fail, the linebacker is there when his teammates need him, channeling what Wartman-White provided three years ago.
Last season, for example, linebacker Cam Brown — a sophomore contributor — was forced into two starts last season due to depth issues. Cabinda took him under his wing.
“Jason, man, I can’t tell you enough about him,” Brown said. “He just showed me the love to compete and finding that love in everything you do when it comes to football. ... You think he’s a great leader during the season. In workouts and things like that, he pushes everybody.”
Cabinda takes that aspect seriously. He said, ultimately, what he wants to be remembered for at Penn State is, “just the way I carry myself from a work-ethic aspect.”
“Seeing those guys look up to you,” Cabinda said, shaking his head, “that’s what you want. That’s why you work hard. It’s why you’re doing the right things. It’s to ensure that that standard of how things need to be done continues to get passed on. You always had guys to show you the way. It’s a cycle.”
It’s a cycle — a Linebacker U loop — that Cabinda’s battled through and thrived in.