IF NEW JERSEY'S HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION DIDN'T REQUIRE ITS foreign-exchange student-athletes to sit out a year upon arrival, then Jack Crawford would have spent the 2005-06 season at Richland's Saint Augustine Prep pursuing his hoop dreams. Instead the sophomore from London spent much of that year lounging on his Italian-American host family's couch bingeing on American football. Two college games brought him to the edge of his cushioned seat. The first was the Orange Bowl, which featured Penn State, the first team he'd ever seen that didn't display players' names on jerseys—making it tough for him to envision ever donning the blue-and-white himself. The second was the Rose Bowl between Texas and USC for the national title, because it was the most intense competition Crawford had ever witnessed. "It was so exciting to me that I thought immediately, I want to give this game a try," he remembers.
Though his formative years playing rugby had seasoned him for the physicality of football, Crawford's unfamiliarity with the game's rules was obvious the instant he reached the field as a junior wide receiver for Saint Augustine in fall 2006. "In my first game I pretty much lined up offside every play," says Crawford. Before long his struggles at flanker prompted a shift to defensive end. "They didn't even tell me to rush the quarterback," Crawford recalls. "They just said, 'Contain the outside.' "
By the following year Crawford had learned to excel on both sides of the ball. His 12-touchdown-reception season led to a scholarship from—of all places—Penn State, where his football education began in earnest. He received round-the-clock tutoring from defensive line coach Larry Johnson, spent hours studying film on offensive linemen and took technical notes from off-season conditioning partner Tamba Hali—a former Nittany Lions All-America defensive end who, like Crawford, came to football late and from another country. Hali evolved into a 2006 first-round draft pick and a star outside linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs. "I spoke to him every night before games," says Crawford, whose family still lives in London. "He used to tell me to get my mind right, to get focused and find my zone."
Never mind that finding playing time was tough enough. Crawford played in every game his freshman year, but his modest number of snaps showed in his meager stats. (He made just four tackles and two pass breakups in platoon duty.) That all changed last year. Crawford found not only his zone, but quarterbacks, too, felling them for 5½ sacks and finishing second on the team in tackles for loss, with 14½. More notable, he flashed a nose for the ball. In addition to three pass deflections, Crawford forced a fumble and recovered two more.
One of two returnees from the front seven that started in last season's Capital One Bowl, Crawford has gone from a novice who labored to absorb basic defensive techniques to a nuanced veteran who works on masking his tendencies. Where he once looked to emulate others, now he sets the example. "If you work hard, your peers will too," says Crawford. "It's my time. I have the experience to step up and lead some of the younger guys. I'm confident on the field and sure of what my assignments are. I believe in myself."