Wartman Hitting on All Cylinders

Penn State’s redshirt sophomore linebacker is coming on strong after rededicating himself.

There is substance to Nyeem Wartman's game now, substance that wasn't there a year ago.

Penn State's redshirt sophomore outside linebacker “really has some lead to him,” head coach James Franklin said Tuesday, a wonderfully vivid way to describe Wartman's ability to deliver a blow.

“When he hits you,” Franklin said, “you feel it.”

It is far from the only substance setting Wartman apart, far from the only reason he has emerged as one of the standouts on the Nittany Lions' nationally ranked defense. There's also gray matter.

“If Mike Hull's an A-plus in football intelligence, Nyeem Wartman's an A,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said last month, referring, respectively, to the Nittany Lions' middle linebacker and weakside 'backer in the same breath.

But it's not just that, either. It's also because Wartman has grown into the role. Because he gets it now, after floundering in 2013, his first season as a starter. Because he takes nothing for granted.

Shoop went so far as to say that Wartman is playing the weak side better than anybody has in the four seasons the coordinator has been working alongside co-coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry. And there is ample evidence of that.

The 6-foot-1, 238-pound Wartman has 45 tackles in eight starts this fall for the Lions (5-4), having missed the Northwestern game with an unspecified arm injury. Eight of those stops came in last Saturday's 13-7 victory at Indiana, as did his first career interception -- that with 2:26 left and resulting in Sam Ficken's second field goal of the game.

That was the capper to a day that saw Wartman and Co. hold Hoosiers tailback Tevin Coleman to 71 yards rushing on 20 attempts. The yardage total was less than half of Coleman's per-game average entering the game, and the first time in 11 outings he had been held under 100.

It was, Wartman noted, “the No. 1 rusher against the No. 1 rush defense. It was a big challenge for us. … We went out there and stopped him. ... That's just a good feeling.”

The Lions have allowed just 85.6 yards per game on the ground, which does in fact remain the best norm in the nation. They are also third in total yards allowed (267.6) and pass efficiency (100.3), and sixth in points allowed (16.6).

Wartman, such a prominent part of the defense's success now, was virtually invisible last year. Entire games would pass without him making a significant play, and looking back he admits he coasted, understanding that the Lions had no one else to play his position.

“I pretty much inherited a starting spot, because we had depth issues,” he said. “I pretty much just started, so I didn't really know what it meant to work to be a starter.”

He made eight starts, the same as he has so far this year, and recorded just 32 tackles. And despite the Lions' threadbare depth chart his playing time began to dwindle as the season wore on.

“I knew that you had to earn a spot, so I just had to prepare a different way (and) do more — like, you've got to do more to earn the results you want.”

That made an impact. So too did the arrival of a new coaching staff. If he was half-hearted while preparing for last season -- “I didn't do much extra,” he admitted -- he made certain to put in the time in the run-up to this year, and then some.

“I knew that you had to earn a spot,” he said, “so I just had to prepare a different way (and) do more -- like, you've got to do more to earn the results you want.”

Wartman made a point of lining up next to Hull -- renowned for his speed, not to mention his work habits -- in offseason running drills, knowing he would set the pace. Wartman studied film, and saw for himself how much he struggled to get off blocks in '13. And he redoubled his efforts in the weight room.

“I would just do more,” he said again.

It has obviously paid off for Wartman, who this week will be facing Temple, his hometown team. One of 10 children born to Veronica White, he lived in Philadelphia until he was a 15-year-old eighth-grader, then moved to Northeast Pennsylvania. He played at Valley View High, near Scranton, and in time drew a scholarship offer from PSU.

Temple was slower to offer him, by his recollection.

“They wanted me to come to a camp first,” he said. “My coach just told me, 'You've got a Penn State offer, and you don't need to go to Temple, to a camp to prove yourself.' ”

(When asked Tuesday if any of his family members had Temple ties, he said, almost too casually, that one of his five brothers was shot “back in the day” and treated at Temple University Hospital. The brother survived, Nyeem said, and is doing “OK.”)

Nyeem has instead proven himself at Penn State. He has shown he is a player of substance.

Or, if you will, substances.


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