Jonathan Sutherland had much to learn about football in the United States once he left his homeland of Canada and enrolled at a high school in Alexandria, Va., needing to get accustomed to the competitive nature and speed of the game while adjusting to a new country and its culture.

He did, however, have one thing going for him: a desire to hit any moving person wearing a helmet.

"I would describe my style of play as being extremely physical and reckless to the football," he said, "and just trying to impose my will every time I get a chance to get out there."

Penn State noticed, which is why Sutherland, a safety, is a Nittany Lion. Even though he redshirted his first season last year, he showed the ability to work hard on the scout team and impressed teammates and coaches, including James Franklin, in tackling drills.

The 5-foot-11, 196-pound Ottawa native will get his first career start Saturday against Iowa, taking over for Garrett Taylor, who must sit out the first half after being ejected last week against Indiana for targeting.

"When he makes his mind up to go make a tackle, there's very little breakdown," Franklin said. "Most guys will come under control and chatter their feet and get their hips underneath them and make the tackle. With Sutherland, he's more like a missile. He just goes. I think he flashes that way a lot. He can bring a lot of the physicality."

Franklin started referring to Sutherland as "The Assassin" around the team. Sutherland, one of three Canadians on the Nittany Lions, shrugs it off.

"I don't really pay attention to nicknames or anything," he said. "I just try to play my game. I guess it's the intensity I play with and going 100 percent each snap, each play, regardless of the situation."

Jonathan Sutherland (26), here knocking the ball away from Indiana’s J-Shun Harris II during a punt return Saturday, will get his first start against Iowa.
Doug McSchooler / AP
Jonathan Sutherland (26), here knocking the ball away from Indiana’s J-Shun Harris II during a punt return Saturday, will get his first start against Iowa.

Sutherland grew up skiing and snowboarding and also played some basketball. He started playing football with his friends at age 8 and grew to like it. As he got older, he learned more about the game from Victor Tedondo, who operates the Gridiron Academy in Ottawa.

Sutherland used to come to the United States for "showcases and combines" and attracted the attention of coaches at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, where he played three years. In the States, he got a chance to watch a lot of football and focused on NFL All-Pro safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, who were "capable of making plays on the ball as well as coming down and hitting you," he said.

He called playing at Penn State "a great opportunity."

"It's not really common for Canadian players to get American exposure," he said. "I came in contact with Penn State after they saw my film. After visiting the campus a few times and meeting with the coaches, it just felt like the most comfortable decision."

Sutherland spent his freshman year learning from Marcus Allen, a hard-hitting All-Big Ten safety now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two stay in touch, and Allen "just tells me to be me, play my game, and don't let any outside distractions get inside my head," Sutherland said.

He has been a special-teams fixture, forcing his first career fumble on Saturday against Indiana, and has played his share of snaps backing up Taylor. He's ready for a longer run Saturday.

And that includes hitting people.

"Any time when you're going to get praised for going out and laying someone out, I think that kind of strikes something in you," he said. "But it's always been part of my game and something I pride myself on."