To say that Emmanuel Beal's path to being on college football's biggest stage has been unconventional would be a bit of an understatement.
Although Beal made the ThisWeek Super 25 for Reynoldsburg High School in both 2011 and '12, becoming a two-year starter for the University of Oklahoma was nowhere on his radar at that time.
Playing at the next level seemed like it might never happen when no major colleges recruited him out of high school.
But now, Beal, a 6-foot, 218-pound senior weakside linebacker, and the second-ranked Sooners (12-1) are preparing to play in the Rose Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, in Pasadena, California, against third-ranked Georgia (12-1) in a semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
The winner plays No. 1 Clemson (12-1) or No. 4 Alabama (11-1) for the national championship Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
"It blows my mind every night," Beal said.
Beal was a defensive end for Reynoldsburg, recording 18 sacks and 12 tackles for loss as a junior in 2011 when the Raiders went 6-4 under first-year coach Buddy White. Then as a senior, he totaled 23 tackles for loss and 14 sacks as the Raiders went 7-3 to miss the Division I, Region 3 playoffs by two spots.
Watching Beal at Oklahoma the last two years has made it easy for White to reminisce.
"He's playing like he played in high school for us," White said. "He flies around and is very quick. I was used to seeing this. His whole style of play I knew would fit at the Division I level if he ever got that chance."
After graduating from Reynoldsburg in 2013, Beal took a year off from football before deciding to give it another shot.
That's when he decided to move to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to walk on at Lackawanna College.
"I was working in Columbus and the nearest junior college was in Scranton, Pennsylvania," Beal said.
According to his bio on Oklahoma's website, Beal was considered just a two-star recruit by Rivals and Scout when he was at Lackawanna. He moved from the defensive line to linebacker for his sophomore year at Lackawanna and appeared in seven games, recording 31 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss.
Bill Bedenbaugh, who has been the Sooners' offensive line coach since 2013, became familiar with Lackawanna while serving as an assistant at West Virginia in 2011 and '12.
"I didn't start getting recruited until my second-to-last semester (at Lackawanna), so it was stressful all the way through," Beal said. "It's tough to get (scholarship) offers out of (a junior college). After Oklahoma offered, a lot of big schools like (Texas Christian), Penn State and Arizona started offering. I had offers from (most major conferences) except for the SEC. But Oklahoma was the first big school that offered me."
Beal appeared in all 13 of Oklahoma's games in 2016, starting the final 10, and finished second on the team with 81 tackles while also recording two forced fumbles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.
He has started every game this season, recording 89 tackles, six tackles for loss, two pass breakups and one interception.
The Sooners got a signature win this season when they beat Ohio State 31-16 on Sept. 9 on the road as Beal recorded nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
"Honestly, it was the funnest game all year for me personally," Beal said.
After losing to Iowa State 38-31 on Oct. 7, Oklahoma won its final seven games of the regular season and then defeated TCU 41-17 in the Big 12 Conference championship game Dec. 2 in Arlington, Texas, to all but secure a spot in the playoff. The official announcement came the next day.
The Sooners have won seven national championships, with the last coming in 2000 under former coach Bob Stoops, who retired at the end of the 2016 season and was replaced by Lincoln Riley.
"Last year, our journey was cut short, but we had expectations to do (better) this season," Beal said. "Everything felt fresh this year. We're just finally playing as a unit. When you do that, you can become unstoppable. Our defense is just fast and fierce."
Beal, who was named honorable mention all-Big 12 this season, is on course to graduate in May and has hopes of pursuing an NFL career.
"I feel like I always could be doing a little better, but everybody is their own worst critic," Beal said. "It's been a learning experience."