Penn State Football

How Penn State’s fun-loving Micah Parsons transforms into one of the Big Ten’s best on game day

Talk to Micah Parsons on an off-day, and he might come across as a big kid — a fun-loving prankster who enjoys video games. But approach the Penn State linebacker on game day, and don’t expect a smile right back.

Parsons grows quiet on Saturdays in the fall. Focused. In his mind, he’s a “serial killer” seeking perfection. Comedy can usually wait until Sunday.

“I love joking around. I love playing around — I could play around for days — but when everything turns on, I just turn into a completely different person,” Parsons said earlier this month. “Game day, I don’t talk anymore. I have to be at a certain level to play how I want to play.”

When Parsons is “on,” few in the Big Ten are better. And even fewer boast bigger expectations. The sophomore is on virtually every major preseason award watch list — Bednarik, Butkus, Nagurski — and he was named to Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List” while also earning a spot on CBS Sports’ preseason All-America team.

The 245-pound linebacker with the 4.43 speed — making him faster on paper than NFL RBs like Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook — might be the most recognizable name on Penn State’s roster. And it’s not hard to see why. “He’s one of the most freakishly athletic people I’ve ever seen in person,” scout-team QB Mike Shuster said. “And that’s not just in Pennsylvania; that’s the country.”

Running back Ricky Slade offered some simple advice to opposing ball-carriers this season: “Good luck. Good. Luck. I’m glad he’s on our team, so we don’t have to deal with him on Saturdays.”

But away from the field, teammates say, Parsons is far from a terror. Whether it’s staying up late to play video games or pulling pranks, Parsons is a lot less serious and more relaxed. And no one knows that better than fellow linebacker Jesse Luketa, who counts the Harrisburg native as his “best friend” and roommate.

One prank still sticks with Luketa. During winter workouts, shortly after the two enrolled last year, players were expected to be on the field by no later than 5:30 a.m. Luketa went to bed early one night; Parsons stayed up to play Fortnite.

“Yo, Jesse! Jesse!” Luketa remembered Parsons yelling while he was asleep. “We’re late! We’re late!”

Luketa rolled out of bed and grabbed whatever clothes he saw lying around. He stubbed his toe, ran to the elevator and punched the buttons. Then he heard it. “All I hear was him dying laughing in the back,” Luketa said with a smile. “I didn’t even have my phone. I didn’t even know what time it was. I was ready to run.”

Turns out it was actually 2 or 3 a.m., giving the pair a few more hours of rest. Luketa walked back, exchanged some choice words with Parsons and went back to sleep. He laughed about it later.

“Micah’s a big kid; that’s the best way to describe him,” Luketa said, adding the two are similar in that way. “But when it’s time to compete, he turns it on. That’s one thing that separates him from a lot of other people. A lot of people don’t have that mental toughness.”

That mental toughness kept Parsons motivated last season. Tell Parsons he can’t do something, and he’ll do everything possible to prove doubters wrong. So, when some wondered whether Parsons would have an immediate impact, since he played defensive end in high school, Parsons wanted to prove himself.

In the opener against Appalachian State, Parsons helped save a would-be touchdown by using a swim move on one lineman, getting away from a blocking tight end, jumping over a teammate and pushing the ball-carrier out of bounds.

That athleticism, and Parsons’ potential, was always evident — but the awareness wasn’t. In the second game, LB Cam Brown remembers turning to Parsons and asking him what the play was. Parsons looked toward Brown’s direction for a moment and, without saying a word, just turned back toward the action. He had no idea.

This year, Parsons has both the athleticism and the awareness. When the defense checks plays, Parsons can even help move the linemen into place now.

“He’s definitely gotten better at knowing what gap he’s supposed to be in,” linebacker Jan Johnson said last week. “Sometimes, last year, he was forcing when he needed to spill or spilling when he needed to force. ... He’s taking more focus on where exactly he needs to be.”

On the field, he’s a future NFL draft pick. Off the field, his father has often said he’s a “Toys ‘R’ Us kid.” He’s shown excitement about trending on Twitter, half-joked about joining the wrestling team and discussed his planned TD celebration dance. “He jokes around a lot,” Brown added.

But don’t confuse Parsons’ fun-loving personality — he just turned 20 years old in May — with not taking football seriously. If he ever lets up during a weight-lifting session, or shows that he’s getting tired, it just takes a quick glance for Parsons to reverse course.

“If he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing, I’ll tell him, ‘Oh I guess that’s good enough for you,’” Luketa said. “He may laugh, but it gets in his head. I can see he gets mad. And if I get him mad, I know I’m doing it right.”

Said Parsons: “The way I carry myself is just different from other people. No one can explain it.”

No one can quite explain his freakish ability either. Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt went viral four years ago for squatting 600 pounds; Parsons can reportedly squat 575. Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb ran a 4.25 in the shuttle at the NFL Combine; Parson can do it in 4.24 seconds. Former Pro Bowl EDGE Cameron Wake could max-bench 345 pounds; Parsons nailed 350 pounds.

Off the field, Parsons is a friendly student-athlete just a few months removed from being a teen. On the field, it’s best to keep a safe distance.

“He’s a different character,” tight end Nick Bowers said. “He has it all — speed, power, strength, all that stuff. He can bring very different things to the football field that other guys can’t.

“He’s going to be a nightmare for a bunch of Big Ten offenses this year.”