Trace McSorley breaks to his left runs away from a defender and throws a perfect ball downfield to a receiver as nearly 110,000 fans cheer in celebration.
As the crowd becomes more and more raucous with each successful play and drive, a small group of players stand together on the sideline and exchange looks. If people in the stands or even coaches on the sidelines wouldn’t look over, it might not even be noticed.
The scout team plays an important role in the professional and college ranks. It gets the first teams ready for the weekend. Justin Neff, a former Central Mountain player and preferred walk-on, was awarded Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors at Penn State University recently.
Neff grew up a Penn State fan, and when it came time to select a college, Penn State came calling, and all other options were thrown out the window.
Neff was in eighth grade when another Central Mountain player joined Penn State as a preferred walk-on. Von Walker joined the team as a walk-on but worked his way to becoming a team captain. He eventually was awarded a scholarship and became a well-known athlete in both State College and Lock Haven.
“Whenever Penn State offered the preferred walk-on, wanting to stay close to home, and with what Von was able to do, I just knew I wanted to be here,” Neff said. “Coming out of high school the biggest adjustment you’re going to make is speed and strength. I worked out hard at the end of my senior year and then I came here. The speed and strength were still far above what I expected.”
Neff appears to be on the same track as Walker as his hard work and commitment to the team are starting to get noticed.
“When I was in eighth grade, Von Walker was graduating, and he was like the big thing,” Neff said. “Everybody used to watch him on Friday nights. Then him going to Penn State and seeing how he did there, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to do the same thing and make my own way here if I could.”
Neff’s weeks aren’t filled with the type of glamour most people would associate with being a football player on the campus of Penn State University.
He works a full load of classes while keeping up with the same schedule for football as every other player on the team. He learns the playbook, he lifts weights, runs, and stays at the top of his game throughout the year.
“The biggest thing for me is to just go out with a positive attitude,” Neff said. “You can go out there, and you can just go halfway through it because you’re not starting. I try to do the best I can and get the offense ready for the game they have that weekend.”
Neff was quick to make the adjustments to the strength and speed of the team as he prepared for his initial season.
“I knew the best thing I could do to help myself was get into the weight room and study the playbook,” Neff said. “That way I could be ahead mentally and I would know where to be on a certain play. I wouldn’t have to rely on speed alone to get there.”
During a typical week, Neff, a criminology major, will balance a workload of classes and practice with the team. Unlike more of the well-known players, Neff is tasked with learning the opposition’s defensive plays as well as keeping up with what Penn State is doing, as well.
“A big thing we do for the guys who don’t play in the games on Saturday is have a scrimmage on Sundays,” Neff said. “I’d say about halfway through the season of my first year is when it started to settle down and began to feel like high school again.”
Neff settled in and eventually found his role as the top defensive player on the scout team. He works constantly on perfecting other teams’ defenses. It shows how unselfish he is as each week he faces a new challenge to learn a new playbook.
Nearly 110,000 fans celebrating a big play by the offense, but just a small group of players on the sideline smiling and putting a mental notch by the scout team defense for a job well done.
“There are certain plays we go through in practice during the year we may or may not pull out during a game,” Neff said. “If we pull it out and it works, we all high five on the sideline and say ‘scout team touchdown,’ because we knew we put into that play.”
At the football team’s annual banquet Neff was awarded his plaque for scout team Defensive Player of the Year. The entire team was there to thank him and congratulate him.
“On my way up people were yelling ‘well deserved’ and giving me high fives and shaking my hand,” Neff said. “They gave me support on my way back and said I deserved it. It meant a lot.”