Offensive linemen usually harbor a secret. They’re used to defensive tackles tiring through a game, as they labor to chase the ball constantly.
But Penn State’s Jordan van den Berg, a one-time rugby player from South Africa, doesn’t tire and never waves. That’s a trait his teammates on the offensive line have definitely noticed.
“It’s just constant,” Penn State offensive lineman Landon Tengwall said. “Some guys, later in the series, you can see they’re kind of tired and they might not chase the ball down, chase the running back down, whatever it may be. But he’s just 100 miles an hour. If he’s on the field, he’s going 100 miles an hour for sure.”
Van den Berg brings one of the more unique stories to Penn State’s defense this season. Originally from Johannesburg, van den Berg didn’t pick up American football until he was a high school sophomore in suburban Atlanta. Then he chose to play for a community college in Iowa and bet that a major program would find him.
It worked. After one (spring) season at Iowa Western Community College, van den Berg was a junior college first-team All-American in 2021 and earned a summer workout with the Lions. After testing well, van den Berg received a scholarship offer on a Wednesday and was at Penn State the following Monday.
He went from community college standout to Big Ten defensive tackle in three months. Not bad for someone who introduced himself to American football via the movie “The Blind Side.”
“It was a quick turnaround,” van den Berg said, “but I was ready for it.”
Van den Berg played eighth man in rugby in South Africa and basketball and baseball in the US (his family moved to the Atlanta area when he was 10). He asked to play American football, but his parents said no, concerned about concussions. Finally, when van den Berg was a sophomore at Providence Christian Academy, they relented.
“They let me play rugby without a helmet, so I don’t know how that really correlates,” he said. “With enough begging, they let me play.”
Van den Berg began his career as a wide receiver, a reminder that he’s fast for his size (he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash during spring testing). But he also has a physical streak that carried him to defense, where he played linebacker first. At Providence Christian, van den Berg set records for game, season and career tackles, making 157 during his senior season.
Still, his college offers were limited, so van den Berg relocated to Iowa Western. The program played an eight-game spring season in 2021, going 7-1 with four shutouts. Van den Berg’s play drew notice from several Big Ten schools, including Iowa and Nebraska, but he quickly accepted Penn State’s offer.
“I felt like this was a place where I could really trust the coaching staff,” he said. “And I really liked their defense.”
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Van den Berg (6-3, 291 pounds) played in four games last season, preserving his redshirt. He forced a fumble against Maryland and made five tackles against Arkansas in the Outback Bowl. Penn State’s coaching staff named van den Berg as the developmental squad defensive player of the year with Dominic DeLuca and Jaden Seider.
“He’s a high. high, high energy guy,” Penn State defensive line coach John Scott, Jr. said. “For a big kid to run 4.7 [in the 40], that’s really good. I love his engine. He won’t be denied. … Even if you got him initially, he’s not going to quit. He’s going to keep hustling to the ball. Guys like that find their way into a play, somehow, some way.”
Van den Berg said that comes from a personal ethos. “In life, you can only control your effort,” he said. But it also stems from his time playing rugby.
“I like a physical sport, to be able to get your anger out on the field and everything,” van den Berg said. “It really translated well. The schemes are a lot different [between rugby and football]but if you’re a tough physical person, you’re going to find success in both sports.”
At Penn State, van den Berg needed time to learn the complexities of American football, with which teammates PJ Mustipher and Nick Tarburton helped greatly. In particular, Mustipher taught him how to watch film and how to play defensive tackle.
This season, van den Berg projects to play as part of Penn State’s interior rotation. How much he plays depends on whether van den Berg can turn that motor into Power 5 tackles. His position coach expects it to happen.
“I’m looking forward to him doing some special stuff,” Scott said.
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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button’s on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.