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Penn State’s Nick Tarburton rebounds from injuries, prepares for playing time at defensive end

Injuries to his back and hip forced him to miss the entire 2019 season. But with the help of his parents, the Pennridge High graduate recovered and has had a good training camp.

Penn State defensive lineman Nick Tarburton during the team's media day in August.
Penn State defensive lineman Nick Tarburton during the team's media day in August.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For The Inquirer

Nick Tarburton couldn’t help being down mentally. He had spent his freshman season at Penn State learning a new position, defensive end, but a back injury sidelined him for his entire second year and later affected his hip, resulting in surgery.

He felt he had no control over what was happening, and that was the most difficult part of the whole process for him. His parents noticed and urged him to focus on what he could control — doing his rehab work, getting proper rest and nutrition, and hitting the books academically.

And staying positive.

“I was always like, ‘Nick, do not feel sorry for yourself,’” Rick Tarburton, his father, said earlier this week. “I know it’s hard. It was tough at times because we’d say, ‘This is your dream. This isn’t our dream. You want to be a Penn State football player. These are the sacrifices and things that you need to do in order to get there. Focus on those things and do them and it will take care of itself.’”

He did. Thanks to determination, hard work, and a positive mindset, Tarburton, a two-time all-state linebacker at Pennridge High School, overcame the injuries that kept him out of football for all of 2019 and some of 2020. A healthy spring practice earlier this year prepared him to compete for significant playing time at defensive end, a position where the Nittany Lions lost both starters to the NFL draft.

As training camp reaches its conclusion, and the countdown proceeds to the No. 19 Lions’ opening game against Big Ten rival and No. 12 Wisconsin on Sept. 4, Tarburton is excited to be entering a season fully healthy for the first time since 2018.

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“That’s life in general,” Tarburton said in a Zoom interview last week. “I was down mentally. It was tough on me. But the biggest thing is just that you’ve got to control what you can control. I have a mindset that I’m never going to give up. Things are going to get better. When I was hurt, my mindset was getting healthy.”

It’s been a productive training camp for the 6-foot-3, 257-pound redshirt junior from Green Lane, Montgomery County. Working with defensive line coach John Scott and Deion Barnes, a graduate assistant and former Northeast High and Penn State star, Tarburton has seen his technique and fundamentals improve. He also has emerged as a leader on the defensive line.

“I’m feeling amazing, to be honest with you,” he said. “Mentally, just being healthy and being able to compete every day is something that I’ll never take for granted again, and just having that ability is amazing.

“We’re competing every day with what I think is one of the best O-lines in the country and you’re going to get bumps and bruises and stuff like that, but you’ve just got to push through it. Each and every day you’ve got to come out with the mindset you’re going to work as hard as you possibly can. That’s kind of how I shaped this camp for myself, and need to continue to do so.”

Penn State’s head coach has noticed.

“He is as healthy as he’s ever been,” James Franklin said. “He’s been able to practice on a really consistent basis now for a long period of time. He’s got such a great motor and intelligence, and he’s physical. So we’re excited about what he’s going to do, obviously an increase amount of playing time and opportunities for him.”

Rick Tarburton and his wife, Ami, know their way around college athletics, having both played college basketball at Pitt-Bradford. They love to see the passion their son has for the game, particularly now as the new season draws near.

“I’m excited for some normalcy, I think,” Rick Tarburton said. “I didn’t realize how great Friday night football was in high school. I thought I couldn’t wait for him to get to Penn State, and he didn’t play for the last couple of years. It’s been more a roller coaster ride for him because we know how passionate he is for the game and how bad he wants it. When he’s not able to do what he loves, it’s tough to watch. So my wife and I are very excited for the season.”

Nick Tarburton enjoys fishing and hunting. Vacations are usually planned around fishing, and the family, which includes two younger brothers, both of whom play college football, owns a boat that they keep in Maryland to enjoy the sport there. On the team’s off-day on Mondays, Tarburton is “out in the woods somewhere by himself” off-campus, his father said.

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“I try to take a step back,” he said. “I don’t talk football with him very much. I talk about everything else — other hobbies, academics, what he’s cooking. He loves to cook. He’s actually pretty good.”

It’s been a long, difficult road for Nick Tarburton. He has played just nine games in three seasons with the Nittany Lions — seven last season, mostly on special teams — but now he’s ready to “put myself and my team in the best position” to be successful.

“I feel like I’m in a pretty good spot right now,” he said.