He was recruited by Penn State to play linebacker, but many opposing high school coaches will remember Jason Cabinda as a running back at Hunterdon Central, including Manalapan head coach Eddie Gurrieri.
Manalapan lost to Cabinda's team, 21-0, in the New Jersey state championship game Dec. 8, and as Gurrieri recalled, Cabinda was "extremely disruptive on the defensive side of the ball, but on the offensive side, he just kept hammering and hammering us."
Cabinda rushed for 175 yards in that title game vs. Manalapan. It was tough sledding during the first three quarters, as Manalapan kept him mostly in check and held his offense to only two field goals. "At times I'd be getting hit in the backfield and I was really only getting 1, 2 or 3 yards," Cabinda remembered. "That's when you have to look at yourself and say, 'Are you as good as you think you are?'"
In the fourth quarter, he answered. He punched in a 2-yard touchdown early in the quarter and then sealed the victory with a 39-yard scoring burst with less than four minutes remaining.
"He kept, like a battering ram, running into our line," Gurrieri said. "Finally those 2- and 3-yard runs turned into 4- and 6-yard runs. Then those 6-yard runs turned into some big ones. He leaned on us and then wore us down late."
Cabinda's defensive effort, though, shouldn't go unnoticed. He helped Hunterdon Central stifle a Manalapan offense that included four-star receiver Saeed Blacknall, another Penn State signee. Blacknall finished the game with only four catches for 39 yards. Plus, linebacker is the position for which most schools recruited Cabinda to play. When Bill O'Brien first secured his verbal commitment on Oct. 23 - Cabinda had previously committed to Syracuse - the then-Nittany Lion coach recruited him as a linebacker. O'Brien's successor, James Franklin, likewise wants the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder playing outside linebacker, although he hasn't ruled out using Cabinda as a middle linebacker or even a short-yardage running back.
Cabinda might require a bit of a transition period since he didn't begin playing linebacker until his senior season. He was previously a pass-rushing defensive end. "For me, getting the reads down was the hardest part," he said. "I'm a great instinctive defensive player, so it wasn't hard, but [I had to improve] my first steps and not fly up the field too much."
As a linebacker prospect, Cabinda might be a little raw, but Gurrieri said "he has a defensive motor that doesn't stop" and also a personality that fans might appreciate.
"He sacked our quarterback once, and he was almost apologizing because he thought he hurt him," Gurrieri laughed. "He was picking the kid up and bringing him back into the huddle. He's a gentleman. He doesn't talk; he lets his actions speak."
Asked about Gurrieri's comments, Cabinda, a Flemington, N.J., native who credits his maturity level to his mother, Natalie, called them "humbling."
Then he elaborated. "If you're lining up on the other side of the ball, you're my enemy," he said. "But when the whistle blows, we're all human beings. You've gotta be good. You've gotta help other guys up. None of that BS, hitting guys while they're on the ground and that kind of stuff.
"Football is football. You have to have the mentality [that] you just want to beat the crap out of the guy on the other side of the ball, but at the end of the day you want to have people's respect; that's important. [Don't be] the guy who, after the play, is shoving their helmet into the ground and talking smack. At the end of the day, you may be a great player, but what is more important: the person inside the helmet or just who you are when you have that jersey on? I think it's important that you portray to people that you're a good person. You have to respect other players. Who knows [whom] you might meet down the road. If, God forbid, you tear an ACL and you're done playing football, you might have to go get that job, and look who the CEO is or look at the person who is hiring. It's that guy who remembers you pushing his head into the ground. You never know."
When initially asked about his thoughts of Cabinda - who Gurrieri knows as the player who helped blank his high-powered offense in the state title game - the first words out of Gurrieri's mouth were, "I love that kid - absolutely love him."