Early in the fourth quarter of Penn State’s game against Indiana last fall, the punt unit was sent out on the field.

As the ball snapped, Jonathan Sutherland sprinted down the field. He looked like a missile in the eyes of James Franklin.

Sutherland was headed straight toward Indiana punt returner J-Shun Harris and in an instant the ball was punched free and found the arms of former Nittany Lion safety Nick Scott.

“That's kind of who he is,” Franklin said last season. “When he makes his mind up to go make a tackle, there's very little breakdown. Most guys will come under control and chatter their feet and get their hips underneath them and then make the tackle, and with Sutherland, he's more like a missile. He just goes.”

Flash forward to this season. Sutherland is still a major force for all four facets of the Nittany Lions’ special teams unit — now under the direction of Joe Lorig. So much so that he was named a special teams captain prior to the start of the season.

“It's a great honor and we take a lot of pride in that, being on all four special teams,” Sutherland said Tuesday. “Just like offense and defense, special teams is a phase of the game that can decide if you win or lose the game. So we take a lot of pride in that and how we approach that.”

Sutherland’s impact in that 33-28 win over the Hoosiers went beyond that forced fumble. He had to come in and replace starting safety Garrett Taylor, who was ejected for targeting in the second half. The Ontario, Canada native finished the game with seven tackles and helped the Penn State defense hold off a late Indiana comeback attempt.

Jonathan Sutherland knocks the ball loose from Indiana's J-Shun Harris II on a punt return in Penn State's 33-28 win over the Hoosiers last October.
Doug McSchooler / AP
Jonathan Sutherland knocks the ball loose from Indiana's J-Shun Harris II on a punt return in Penn State's 33-28 win over the Hoosiers last October.

“Stepping up to the plate was a great challenge, but it was something that I prepared for,” Sutherland said, reflecting on his first meaningful college snaps. “Although I wasn't starting, I was still preparing throughout the game week as if you were to be starting. It was a great confidence booster just showing to my teammates and the coaches that I could step up and help this team get a win.”

Even though Sutherland likely won’t be a starter until next season after Taylor graduates, that week-to-week work ethic has resonated with Franklin and the rest of the coaching staff.

“He’s just been phenomenal,” Franklin said, ”And he’s one of those guys, there’s no question in anybody’s mind that he’s earned everybody’s respect in the program, players, coaches, trainers, doctors, academic staff, because it’s just kind of how he goes about his business. Very mature approach.”

Sutherland certainly carries himself in a mature way, despite the fact that he probably feels he’s capable of being one of the two starting safeties.

“I just took pride in coming to work every day and trying to contribute to whatever I could possibly do on the team,” Sutherland said. “I found myself in a position where I could excel on special teams, and I just went with it and kept working.”

But even for one of the more mild and mature players on the Penn State roster, even he can’t help but get excited when talking about his favorite parts about being a special teams player.

“I like hitting people, running full speed,” Sutherland said with a laugh.