EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Jason Pierre-Paul isn't sure he expected this much of a breakout performance in his second season with the Giants, simply because the former USF defensive end has never had a second season anywhere during his football career.
"This is my first time being in the same locker room two years in a row," said Pierre-Paul, who played just one season at USF and at two junior colleges after picking up the sport as a senior in high school.
"I'm very excited not to have to switch out, to learn the ins and outs again, learn everything, the new plays."
Pierre-Paul is a big part of why the Giants are 6-2 and leading the NFC East entering today's game against the 49ers, having piled up 9½ sacks (second most in the league) and played well enough to be mentioned on midseason All-Pro lists.
A year ago, he had zero sacks in his first 10 games. But as the game around him slowed down, his progress sped up.
"Experience has helped him tremendously," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "A year ago, everything was first time. It's not the first time anymore. We've got more to go, but I think he's doing well."
Teammates who developed over four or five years of major-college football give him grief for his short college tenure. But as he builds experience as a pro, the 22-year-old is learning and enjoying the kind of swift transformation many players only see as a college upperclassman.
"Confidence comes from demonstrated performance," Giants defensive end Chris Canty said. "He has not played a lot of organized football to say the least. He played a year in (junior college), played a year in college and what, he's in the NFL.
"It's a big step for him. Him coming back to something familiar, it's boding well for him, and you see it in his play."
Pierre-Paul said his initial transition to the NFL was difficult, both in the complexity and speed of the pro game and the need for him to mature quickly and act like a professional.
"When I first got here, everything was so fast," he said. "I couldn't react fast enough. I feel like I've grown up a lot.
"I'm still learning, but I know what I'm doing. I don't have to worry about people yelling at me for making a stupid mistake. I had a lot of that. It was what it was."
In the past 14 games, Pierre-Paul has 14 sacks, including one last week in a win against the Patriots despite being missing practice because of concussion-like symptoms two days earlier. The difference is easy to see on Sunday afternoons, but teammates see it during the week, in a newfound dedication in the film room and attentiveness during position meetings.
"The biggest progress is mental, how he approaches the game," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "He's always had the athletic attributes. I didn't think he understood what it took to be really great in this league. Last year, he thought he could just do it off his talents. I can see him understanding now. He's starting to pick those things up. I remember the eye-opening experience that Year 1 was (for me)."
Pierre-Paul, who is of Haitian descent and grew up in Deerfield Beach in South Florida, played only one season at USF, racking up 16½ tackles for loss and showing enough promise that the Giants took him with the 15th overall pick, the highest any USF player has been drafted.
He's making good on those high expectations with a confidence built on performance, not reputation.
"He's just trusting what he sees, trusting himself, trusting his technique," Canty said. "That confidence is kind of exuding from him, and that's what makes a difference."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346.