When Penn State safety Nick Scott moved from Brookline, Mass., to Fairfax, Va., before his junior year of high school, his father reached out to the football coach at his son’s new school.
Scott had quickly become a star in his two years at Brookline. Schools such as Alabama, Nebraska, Boston College and Penn State eventually would recruit him. But that was in the future. At this point, the Scotts was preparing their youngest son for a new school and a new team.
“His father said, ‘We wanted to introduce ourselves. We are the Scott family.’” Kevin Simonds, then the coach at Fairfax High School, said. “‘We’re moving there from Brookline, and we have a son who is interested in playing football.’ I loved how he used the phrase ‘interested in playing football.’
“He comes from an incredible family. His mom and dad are incredible, and he has some great older brothers.”
Scott will be a redshirt junior for the Nittany Lions in 2017. He’s started one game in his career — at running back in 2015 — but Scott has become a stalwart on special teams. He will be that unit’s captain for the 2017 season.
He’s also among the players vying for the open starting safety position opposite Marcus Allen. The play of Scott, senior Troy Apke and redshirt sophomore Ayron Monroe will make safety one of the intriguing positions to monitor during the Blue-White game, which is Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
It’s been far from a straight line to this point for Scott, but everywhere he’s been, a similar story has emerged. He’s beloved by teammates and coaches alike, which is why it shouldn’t be a surprise that he will be one of the players to walk to midfield for the coin toss when Penn State opens the 2017 season against Kent State.
“His skill set made him a major Division I player, but it was his character that stood out,” said Kevin Mahoney, who coached Scott at Brookline High School. “He would never get down. He likes to be coached. It’s like the analogy … I’m in Boston and I’m a Patriots fan. Bill Belichick never separates [Tom] Brady from the rest of the guys. He’ll get on him as much as the other guys. When your best player is your most coachable player, you really have a team with good leadership.”
‘He’s the best player and best person I’ve ever coached’
Scott moved around as a kid. He was born in Lancaster, Pa., where his admiration for Penn State took hold. The family then moved to Massachusetts and, later, Northern Virginia.
It’s a distinct kind of experience for kids to uproot and start over. They have to make new friends. They have to fit in and win over a group of people who only see an outsider at first.
“I think that was a huge factor in how my personality developed,” Scott said. “I’ve always been someone who has been in different places and been around a lot of different demographics, so I feel it helps me communicate with all different types of people. I think I definitely have an advantage in that area.
“I’ve been jumping around a lot, meeting new people, making new friends. A huge part of that was football, because wherever I went, I was on the football team. I was instantly thrown into a team environment where I was supported and could support other people.”
Why do both of his high school coaches rave about Scott? Why do his Penn State teammates clearly respect and adore him? It goes well beyond his athletic ability.
Mahoney answered his phone, heard that someone wanted to ask him about Scott and responded with, “He’s the best player and best person I’ve ever coached,” before the questions even began.
“When he was going into his sophomore year, we had workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5 a.m. in the offseason,” Mahoney said. “I saw the commitment in him and he wanted to do it, so I was there. There were only 3 other players and him. Working out every morning on his ball skills at 5 in the morning was pretty remarkable. He actually had to drag his older brother along, because Nick was more excited to do it.”
The Scott family moved to Fairfax in time for Nick to spend part of the summer getting to know his new teammates and have a jump start on the process of fitting in. Given his status as an established star in Massachusetts who was already receiving interest from colleges, Scott could have shown up at his new school with a sense of entitlement or attempted to act like the new alpha dog on the team.
He didn’t do that.
“We did our summer workouts, early in the morning. He was almost always the first one there,” Simonds said. “We’d go outside and run and do our conditioning in the heat of summer, and then our younger kids would come in after that.
“Nick would stay and help work out with the freshmen. He would help them work out, like a mentor. He didn’t know any of them. That’s who he was. He wanted to be around the school and the team and the facilities.”
‘One of those one-in-a-million-type kids’
Scott arrived in State College in 2014 as a running back. He played several positions in high school, but expected to run the ball for the Lions after his redshirt freshman season. But Penn State enrolled a future Heisman Trophy candidate at that position in 2015, and it wasn’t long into that season before Saquon Barkley became the present and future of the program.
So Scott adapted. He switched to safety before last season.
Brookline was a rebuilding program with a relatively new coach. Mahoney knew he had a superstar on the roster before Week 1 of Scott’s freshman year, but he didn’t want expose him to the team’s growing pains immediately. When Scott sustained a concussion, he missed the first half of the season, anyway.
He still ran for nearly 700 yards in 5 games as the quarterback in a spread, zone-read-heavy offense. He didn’t play much on defense, but only because his coaches didn’t want to overload him.
Mahoney said Scott was the best player in the league as a freshman, but then the former Brookline coach corrected himself. He remembered Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, a 5-star recruit and an All-American as a sophomore for the Tigers, is from Springfield, Mass.
“OK, so [Scott] was the second-best player in the league as a freshman,” Mahoney said.
Scott was a two-way star as a sophomore at quarterback and safety. When he moved to Virginia, Simonds called Mahoney to see what he could learn about the new kid “interested in playing football.”
“His comment was, ‘Coach, this might be 1 of those 1-in-a-million-type kids.’ And he was so on target,” Simonds said. “Nick was coachable. He was such a gifted athlete. He was a God-driven kid who had a great mindset and a great outlook on things.”
Simonds put Scott at running back, and he excelled. He put him at wide receiver, and he excelled. Eventually, Scott settled in at quarterback. Fairfax had been a wing-T team for nearly a decade, but Simonds switched to the spread to run lots of zone-read plays for Scott. Scott didn’t play on defense, but only to save his impact for the offense.
“We had seen him throw the ball in practice, and it was kind of just a lazy, easy throw but it was a dart to someone 40 yards away,” Simonds said. “We were like, ‘Oooh-kay then.’ He could do any task. We found out pretty quickly that he can be pretty darn good on the football field at anything.”
Succeeding Malik Golden
Scott’s challenge last season was learning a new position at the highest level of college football. This season, it is competing for a starting role.
Malik Golden did not earn the praise from outside the program that Allen and John Reid did last season. He didn’t factor into two of the most crucial plays of the season as Grant Haley did. But his teammates consistently lauded Golden for being one of the most important leaders on the team.
Scott, Apke and Monroe are the top candidates to replace him. Garrett Taylor has moved from cornerback to safety as well.
“I think the competition is going really well. We have a really athletic group,” Scott said. “I think now at the end of the spring, a lot of us have shown that we can be factors. I think the summer is going to be huge in determining who is actually going to be on the field for that first game and take the reins from Malik Golden.
“He’s a very hard guy to replace because he has so much experience and really was sort of the quarterback of the defense. Coach [Tim] Banks has done a great job of getting us prepared and letting us know that the standard isn’t dropping. We know how valuable Malik was. We’ve got guys that are battling so hard.”
Von Walker was Penn State’s special teams captain last season. When he broke his leg and couldn’t play in the Rose Bowl, Scott wore Walker’s No. 25 as a tribute.
Scott is now the captain of the special teams. Whether he will start at safety is undecided, but Scott figures to make an impact wherever he plays on the field.
Scott has had to move around and adapt since arriving at Penn State, but he’s accustomed to that.
“I’m sure he will work his butt off and become a good starter for [Penn State],” Mahoney said. “He’s a guy who wants to get on the field and help however he can. That’s who he is.
“You can’t find a picture of him without an ear-to-ear smile. That’s just who he is. It’s impossible to be a room with the kid and not feel welcomed or loved. That’s what his teammates are feeling.”