INDIANAPOLIS — Ask the Giants, any Giant, really, about Jason Pierre-Paul and they all touch on a variation of a theme: He doesn't even know how good he can really be.
Maybe Pierre-Paul, who turned 23 years old one month ago, would join the chorus.
Sunday the world will see this raw but electric talent up close. They might not be ready. But the Giants' second-year defensive end, who watched the Super Bowl last year for the first time, might be ready to be the game's next biggest star.
You have to know where he came from to appreciate fully just how special he is.
Asked just how raw the 6-5, 278-pound Pierre-Paul, who had only one year of Division I college experience before the Giants drafted him in Round One, was as a rookie, Giants DE Justin Tuck said: "On a scale of one to 10, I would say one."
Football came late. Pierre-Paul didn't start until his junior year of high school, and really at that time his biggest concern was helping the family pay its bills. He found a job at Boston Market and was on track to be a manager. His boss allowed Pierre-Paul to tailor his schedule around football practice to make the job work.
But really, basketball was his first love. Watching the viral video of a college-aged Pierre-Paul rip off 23 consecutive back handsprings prior to the International Bowl, one rightfully could be fooled into thinking his passion was gymnastics. But hoops were what caught his attention first, and that's by no means a stretch. When Pierre-Paul was going through the draft process, many scouts referred to him as a basketball player learning the game of football on the fly.
Two junior-college stops later, and after one year at South Florida, Pierre-Paul declared early for the draft. He was very much a football neophyte, but the raw skill most certainly was there.
Several players in Sunday's game faced Pierre-Paul during his one year in Division I.
Giants FB Henry Hynoski, who played at Pitt, said the Panthers' entire goal was to stop him.
"I remember the whole emphasis that week (of practice) was the running backs and fullbacks had to chip on either end because they had J.P.P. on one side, George Selvie on the other. That's all we practiced: chip blocks," Hynoski said. "It was tough duty, and we won, but he still made some fantastic plays.
"But he is better now. If he was as good then as he is now, the result of that game would have been different."
Patriots practice-squad DE Alex Silvestro saw Pierre-Paul at Rutgers. So did Devin McCourty. Although neither went up against him directly, both came away impressed.
"I saw him and I was like, 'This guy can ball!' " Silvestro said. As a pass rusher himself, Silvestro definitely was jealous of Pierre-Paul's God-given gifts. "All the tools. Guys dream to have his frame and his arms. What a talent."
"I remember that game, but I remember him, too," McCourty said. "You definitely didn't have to look hard to notice him."
Said Giants OT Selvish Capers, a three-year starter at West Virginia: "There was one play where he got past me with a club move to the inside and caused an incomplete pass on a big third down. Those long arms, they're magic for him. He uses them so well."
Giants rookie LB Jacquian Williams, who played with Pierre-Paul at Fort Scott Community College and at South Florida, has had the best view of his ascension. Williams said, "Everyone knew he always had the size, speed, talent to do it all ... it was (a matter of) when was he going to do it? Now, as the years have gone on, he's starting to understand the game better. He's still learning."
Don't think that the Patriots, the Giants' opponent Sunday, didn't take notice of Pierre-Paul coming out, despite his limited college production: 6½ sacks in 13 games and only seven starts at South Florida. They still liked what they saw.
"Very talented player," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "Rare size, speed, talent. The game was a little new to him. But he looked like a guy that obviously was going to get a lot better. No question about his toughness, his competitiveness. He was a strong player, just didn't have a lot of experience."
Rare. You hear that word a lot with Pierre-Paul.
"He really only played about six (whole) games, it seemed," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. "You could see it, though: a rare guy for the things he could do for his size. So long, so athletic. Quick, powerful ... the things you see now, you saw it then. It was just a matter of allowing him to do more of it."
But the Giants nabbed him before the Patriots had a chance. Since they drafted Pierre-Paul with the 15th pick in 2010, he has been the pet project of DL coach Robert Nunn. Because of his limited football experience, so many things were new to Pierre-Paul. Most of the time in college, the goal, boiled down, was simple: find the ball and go get it.
"I had no clue where I was going to get picked at," Pierre-Paul said. "My agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was like, 'You will probably go first round,' and I didn't really know too much about all of that stuff. I wasn't really a football guy that was focused in on the draft and all that type of stuff. But when I got picked where I got picked, I wasn't too excited because I didn't understand it. Now, going back and thinking about it, that was a big deal."
"I haven't been around one quite like him. From Day One when he stepped into the NFL, did I think he would be at this point now? I didn't," Nunn said. "But the guy has come in there hungry every day. He just hasn't been around that much football. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, we went over some little things where you realize he just hasn't been through that. You have to walk him through things."
His adjustment to the NFL was not easy at first, and the speed of the game kept him very much under wraps. Pierre-Paul played sparingly on defense as a rookie last season, and the Giants seemed content to utilize his athleticism on special teams while developing him on defense.
That was until Week 12. Pierre-Paul came off the bench to collect eight tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles, bursting onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere. But defensive coordinator Perry Fewell previously had an idea that greatness might have been in store at a moment's notice.
"We were playing Chicago (in Week Four) and he intercepted a ball, but they called it back because of a penalty," Fewell said. "He did that, and I said, 'He's got a taste of it. Let's give him more things to do.' "
Pierre-Paul finished the season strong with two more sacks the following week and totaled 4½ as a rookie. The light when on, he said, when he started asking his teammates for help with technique and gap assignments.
"I think I was just a little shy at first," Pierre-Paul said. "But I eventually knew they had my back. I trusted them."
The assumption, though, was that the lockout was a critical blow for players such as Pierre-Paul, who needed that constant supervision and nurturing as a player. As for his routine during the NFL's work stoppage, Pierre-Paul admitted he spent a lot of time with family — and on the couch.
"A few weeks before football was back, I started getting into shape," he said sheepishly.
Fewell had just finished praising his second-year player this week — "I give him credit for the work he did this summer," he said — when told of Pierre-Paul's self-admitted sedentary lifestyle for a few months.
"You know, I detected just a little flab on him when he came back," Fewell said.
It didn't seem to matter. Pierre-Paul had two sacks in the preseason opener, causing head coach Tom Coughlin to heap praise on him. Pierre-Paul didn't let it go to his head, though, as it kicked off his breakout campaign. He had two sacks in each of three of the first five games and finished with six sacks in the final four regular-season games — right when the Giants needed him most — for a total of 16½.
"He stays in balance as well as any defensive lineman I've been around," Nunn said. "He can get in a bad situation, and all of a sudden, he can lock down and anchor big men."
His two vintage games this season came in back-to-back games against the Cowboys and Redskins down the stretch. In Week 14 at Dallas, Pierre-Paul blocked the Cowboys' game-tying FG attempt in the final seconds, also recording two sacks (including a safety) and a forced fumble. The next week, a shocking loss to the Redskins did not fall on Pierre-Paul's shoulders. He tallied 16 tackles, an amazing total for a defensive lineman, and added a sack.
"Last year, I don't think he could name one (NFL) offensive lineman. He just knew he was going against this cat," Nunn said. "Now we always sit down before games and go through every little thing. He gets it now."
Giants LB Chase Blackburn saw Pierre-Paul's rookie season but was released and didn't rejoin the roster until after Week 12 this season. Blackburn was shocked at how far Pierre-Paul had come.
"His preparation, his understanding of the defense, it was much better," Blackburn said. "Understanding how to adjust to checks made and responding immediately. That's the biggest difference this year to last."
Belichick, too, has seen the growth.
"He's one of the best defensive linemen in the league," he said.
Belichick said the Patriots have practiced this week, even in seven-on-seven drills, trying to simulate the Giants' length up front. They have several tall, long-armed and interchangeable pass rushers who can play almost any technique along the front. Pierre-Paul is the longest and most athletic of the group, which is saying something.
"His length and the fact that he can still play with power, it's a testament to how good a football player he is, and maybe one of the best I have seen," said Patriots OG Brian Waters, a 12th-year player who was teammates with Jared Allen and Tamba Hali in Kansas City. "You can't get into an athletic contest with him because you're going to lose."
But so much of the NFL is a mental contest, too, and it's the reason Pierre-Paul had made the big jump. He also has had to handle his newfound stardom and all the attention that comes with it. Ever since an ESPN story revealed that Pierre-Paul's blind father would be attending Super Bowl XLVI, the first time he'll experience his son playing football in person, it has pushed the second-year rusher into the stratosphere. But so far, he has found a way to handle it all coming at him.
"Every day I talk to my wife about him. It's going to be fun to be a part of it," Nunn said. "If he continues to grow in all areas, on and off the field, it's really going to be interesting to see what he ends up becoming. I do believe he hasn't even scratched the surface."
And Pierre-Paul's teammates love him, too.
"He has us laughing every minute," DT Linval Joseph said. "I'd go to battle for that guy any day."
Sunday, Pierre-Paul could have the Patriots crying. He might not know how good he is yet, but the rest of the world is taking notice.