Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer is known for rattling off nicknames. Offensive lineman Chasz Wright is “Big Bacon,” tackle Des Holmes was dubbed “Big Sweat” and freshman Corey Bolds goes by “Day-Day.”
Some monikers are funny; others are telling.
When freshman defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and his mountainous 6-foot-5 frame showed up on campus, Spencer had one name for him: Lobo.
“The wolf dog,” Spencer said, translating the Spanish word to English. “He goes and gets his prey.”
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After an eye-opening offseason and promising inaugural campaign, that is what Spencer and teammates expect out of Gross-Matos as soon as 2018.
One of three true freshmen to see playing time in 2017, Gross-Matos showed flashes of what could be a dominant presence for years to come. He appeared in all 13 games and played 29 percent of Penn State’s defensive snaps, per 247 Sports. In those spurts, Gross-Matos tallied 17 tackles, three quarterback hurries, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery.
The former four-star prospect showed why Clemson was on him early in the recruiting process — and why Alabama tried to come in late and steal him from Penn State.
Spencer said Gross-Matos reminds him of Carl Nassib, a 6-foot-7 havoc-wreaker who set Penn State’s single-season sacks record with 15.5 in 2015.
Like Nassib, the freshman is an “athletic freak,” according to teammate Ryan Buchholz. Gross-Matos, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, wears a 17 or 18-sized shoe. “They're ginormous,” Buchholz said shaking his head. “They have to special order them every time.”
Spencer also finds himself marveling at Gross-Matos’ stature.
“The way a guy that tall plays with tremendous pad level and able to strike his keys and get off blocks, he has a chance to have an unbelievable career here,” the assistant coach said, “if he continues to work the way he does.”
For some young players, that might be a big if. But Gross-Matos’ teammates don’t see that being an issue.
Shareef Miller called Gross-Matos “a real good learner and listener,” and Buchholz commended the freshman’s ability to retain and apply advice offered by older pass rushers. That was obvious when Gross-Matos looked like a veteran himself late in the Fiesta Bowl, fighting through a double-team, staying with the play and bringing down Washington quarterback Jake Browning for a sack.
Gross-Matos doesn’t believe he hit the proverbial “freshman wall,” instead getting better every day with the support of those upperclassmen. But he’d be lying if he said the transition wasn’t tough at first.
“My confidence at the beginning of the season, I mean, it was hard,” the freshman said two days before Penn State’s 35-28 win over Washington. “I didn’t really know any of the plays or understand the defense.”
Added Buchholz: “At the D-end spot, we drop in coverage a lot and do other stuff. And earlier in the year, he didn’t really understand the whole picture of some plays.”
In time, though, Gross-Matos caught on.
The freshman said as the season progressed, his responsibilities on the field became clearer. He felt more comfortable in his role.
It showed, too. With Buchholz injured at Ohio State, Gross-Matos was thrust into a prominent role down the stretch. He tallied three tackles and a half-sack at Michigan State and chipped in three more stops the following week against Rutgers.
The mental part of Gross-Matos’ game started to catch up his physical prowess. Potential slowly blossomed into production.
Now that he has the scheme down, the Nittany Lions anticipate even more out of “Lobo” in 2018 and beyond.
“I got some really good playing time this year,” Gross-Matos said. “It’s just going to help me in the future.”
Added Miller: “He’s going to be a really good player here once he puts everything together.”