Player added to an already impressive resume on Saturday when he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in East Tennessee State’s 24-6 victory over Virginia Military Institute.
It was the kind of play becoming more and more expected from a defensive end who has turned into a complete football player.
“There’s nobody on our football team that practices any harder than Nasir Player,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said. “I watch him. He doesn’t know I’m watching at times. He has great effort, a great motor, all through practice. He’s practicing with a purpose. How he practices is exactly how he plays.”
Player’s signature play came in the first quarter. He snagged a pass tipped high in the air by teammate Jason Maduafokwa just inside the VMI 5-yard line and returned it for a touchdown, his first on any level of football.
“It’s still exciting,” Player said. “I still go back and look at the video every now and then, but at this point I’m ready to play Samford this week. I like having the ball in my hands now. I like getting interceptions. I like getting turnovers.”
The touchdown got Player plenty of notice, but anybody who has watched an ETSU game — in person or on film — has already noticed the way the 6-foot-6, 247-pound red-shirt sophomore makes plays. He truly defends sideline to sideline and makes tackles in the backfield as well as downfield.
Player, who also played a year of lacrosse while in high school in Columbia, South Carolina, ranks fourth in the Southern Conference with 11.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback sacks. He got two of those sacks in addition to his touchdown against VMI.
“Probably as good a defensive football game for a defensive lineman since we’ve been here,” Torbush said. “He had an outstanding game.”
It’s the kind of production the Bucs coaching staff envisioned when they held Player out as a red-shirt during his freshman year, the school’s first year back in football, even though there were whispers that he could turn into an NFL prospect before he ever played a college game.
Player and the Bucs will face one of their biggest challenges of the season on Saturday at 3 p.m EST when they play at Samford, a team they beat 15-14 last season. Bulldogs quarterback Devlin Hodges has thrown for more than 3,000 and 24 touchdowns. He averages 335 passing yards per game.
Interestingly, Player’s touchdown came on a pass thrown by Hodges’ brother, Duncan Hodges, VMI’s quarterback.
“That’s a lot of yards, but we played them last year, so we just have to be ready to play,” Player said.
The Bucs fell behind 14-0 last season before rallying to win on JJ Jerman’s last-second field goal.
“I think the biggest thing last year is nobody really panicked,” said Player, a member of the SoCon’s all-freshman team last season. “Once we were down, nobody really felt like we were going to stay down. Everybody just needs to stay on board and make sure that we know that it's not over until it's over. We can always come back and fight, and I feel like that was the biggest thing about last year. Nobody gave up, everybody fought until the very end.”