STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - On the bus after Penn State's season opener, Jason Cabinda wanted to talk to coach Bob Shoop. Cabinda, a weakside linebacker at the time, had seen middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White go down in the game with a season-ending injury.
"Jason said, 'Put me in there, I got this,' " recalled Shoop, the Lions defensive coordinator. "That's kind of his personality. To me, he brings some things to the table that I've seen very, very few guys have."
Looking back, those three words - "I got this" - were foretelling. After Cabinda learned he would start at middle linebacker, he watched every game his predecessors Mike Hull and Wartman-White had played. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Cabinda, whom linebackers coach Brent Pry called one of the team's hardest hitters, went on to log 92 tackles in the regular season. As the defensive signal-caller, Cabinda earned the respect of his older teammates.
"It's crazy to think about it. If you asked me at the beginning of the year if I was going to be controlling the defensive play, I would've been like: 'No way,' " Cabinda said. "To be doing it as a true sophomore, it's different. You got guys like Anthony Zettel, who is a fifth-year senior, and you're telling Zettel: 'Hey, move to the A gap.' "
Talk with Cabinda, and it's easy to see how he has come to thrive in the role. The 19-year-old speaks like a coach - thoughtful, confident, and commanding of attention. He laughs at that comparison, which has been made most of his life.
"I've been through a lot, especially with my mom," Cabinda said. "When you go through adversity, you get stronger obviously and you get more mature."
The Flemington, N.J., native calls his mother, Natalie, his rock. When he was growing up, she worked two jobs, but never missed his football, basketball, or lacrosse games.
Playing sports helped to shape Cabinda into becoming a leader, he said, and molded his competitiveness.
"I think the mind-set that you have in sports is something that you can take everywhere," he said. "If one of [my teammates] is in my class and we both have a test, I want to do better than him."
In college, Cabinda's determination has not gone unnoticed.
"Jason is a man," coach James Franklin said in September. "I think Jason has a chance to be really good. He's doing everything right."
Now Cabinda is focused on Penn State's Jan. 2 matchup with Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. He understands the game's significance to a program that in 2012 was hit with NCAA sanctions that included a four-year postseason ban.
"People thought Penn State football would be over after everything that happened," he said. "What [the seniors have] done for our program couldn't even be described in words. To be able to send them out with a 'W' in this bowl game would be huge."
For Cabinda, the game means the last chapter of a season that has taught him a lot about himself.