Penn State Football: All-Time Best Recruit at Each Position

Barry Leonard@@barryleonardjrAnalyst IIIMay 7, 2013

Penn State Football: All-Time Best Recruit at Each Position

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    The Penn State Nittany Lions have a history that is full of success and rich in tradition. To be successful in college football, schools must be able to recruit and bring in the best talent. Penn State has done a great job of that over the years.

    The names of players who have played for the Nittany Lions are legendary. Lenny Moore, Jack Ham, Ted Kwalick and Bobby Engram just to name a few.

    Penn State has produced one Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti in 1973, and it is tied with Notre Dame for the most winners of the Maxwell Award, which is given to the nation's best player. Seven Nittany Lions have won the award.

    There's no doubt that many top recruits have seen the field in Happy Valley.

    For this piece, we are going to take a look at the top recruit for each position. The criteria to make the list was based more on hype and potential than actual production at the collegiate level. Therefore, some of the players listed are not necessarily the best to ever play for the Nittany Lions.

    Unfortunately, being a top high school recruit doesn't always equate to success at the next level.

    The list is dominated by players from the last two decades, as recruiting information is hard to come by for years before the 1990s. Partly because recruiting websites have not been around very long.

    Every attempt was made to include players from earlier years of Penn State football.

    There is sure to be debate, but after scouring available resources, here's the list of top recruits from Penn State history.

Quarterback: Christian Hackenberg

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    Christian Hackenberg has yet to take a snap for the Nittany Lions, yet fans are already excited about what he could do in the future. Hackenberg, a 5-star recruit according to, is listed as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback and the 13th overall national recruit for the class of 2013.

    There's no doubt the young signal-caller brings a lot of hype. He received offers from several major programs, including Alabama, Florida and Tennessee.

    The Nittany Lions ultimately won out, due in large part to head coach Bill O'Brien. As Bob Flounders wrote on, when asked at his signing why he chose Penn State, Hackenberg responded, "I feel better with Coach O'Brien, what he did with (quarterback Matt) McGloin, I can't wait (to get up there)."

    Over the course of his high school career, Hackenberg was able to show off his strong arm and accumulate great statistics. He threw for 5,509 yards and 56 touchdowns.

    According to his ESPN scouting report,

    He is a smart player who reads defenses quickly and rarely forces the football. Very good timing passer who anticipates the breaks his receivers will make and can throw to a spot. He stands tall in the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield and when he sees things open up, he will drive the ball with pressure in his face with a high delivery. Very good quickness in his drop, gets good depth and comes to balance smoothly at the top

    While there was talk he might redshirt in 2013, that no longer seems like an option. With the transfer of 2012 backup Steven Bench, Hackenberg will have an opportunity to show his stuff while battling with junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson for the starting job.

    Hackenberg has certainly brought a lot of promise and attention to the Nittany Lions. Time will tell if he turns into the great quarterback that everyone at Penn State hopes.

Running Back: Curt Warner

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    The Nittany Lions have had many amazing running back through the years, including guys like Lenny Moore, John Cappelletti, DJ Dozier and Ki-Jana Carter.

    Curt Warner gets the nod as Penn State's best running back recruit. He was a high school star in West Virginia, being named a Parade High School All-American in 1978.

    In his career at Penn State, he ran for 3,398 yards with 24 touchdowns. He was the school's leader in career rushing yards until Evan Royster passed him in 2010.

    Not only was Warner a talented runner, but he was also a dangerous weapon in the passing game and as a kick returner. For his career, he totaled 4,982 all-purpose yards.

    He also was a key part on some of the best teams in school history, winning back-to-back Fiesta Bowls and a Sugar Bowl. During his senior year in 1982, Warner helped lead the Nittany Lions to their first national championship. Against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, he ran for 177 yards and scored twice.

    Warner was a two-time All-American in 1981 and 1982, and is still Penn State’s all-time leader in 100-yard games, with 18.

    Warner was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

    He had a productive career in the NFL after being drafted third overall in 1983 by the Seattle Seahawks.

Wide Receiver: Derrick Williams

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    Penn State landed a great recruit in 2005 with the signing of Derrick Williams. The Greenbelt, Md., native was a 5-star recruit who had offers from top schools like Florida, Oklahoma, Florida State, Texas and Tennessee.

    He was leaning towards joining the Gators, but changed his mind after the firing of head coach Ron Zook. listed Williams as the overall top recruit in the nation. had him as the fourth overall recruit and the second-best wide receiver prospect in the country.

    In high school, he was a triple threat, putting up huge numbers as a quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Williams was named to the Parade All-American High School team in 2004.

    Williams' high school coach, Rick Houchens said on, "In all my years and all of my players that I have been blessed to work with, Derrick Williams is without a doubt the greatest player that I have not only coached but also seen in my ten year high school coaching career."

    The talented wide receiver did live up to his hype, becoming one of the best receivers in Penn State history as well as a top kick returner. He finished with 1,743 receiving yards and 4,156 all-purpose yards.

    After his college career, Williams was drafted in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He later spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers before moving to the Canadian Football League.

    He was released in Canada on March 13, 2013, and has yet to sign with a new team.

Tight End: Kyle Brady

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    Kyle Brady was a member of the 1990 class and a key contributor on the undefeated 1994 team. Brady, a tight end from Cedar Cliff High School in Camp Hill, Pa., was a top recruit heading to Penn State.

    He was a USA Today All-USA selection as well as a Parade All-American.

    During his recruiting, Brady was wooed by several other big name schools. Miami, West Virginia, Michigan and Virginia were all hoping to gain his services. In the end, it was the home-state Nittany Lions and legendary coach Joe Paterno who won out.

    Brady was quoted by Dick Weiss of the Philadelphia Inquirer explaining why he chose Penn State.

    "I was very close to going to West Virginia, who guaranteed I would be a starter four years," Brady said. "But I dreamed of playing for Penn State and Joe Paterno, one of the greatest coaches of all time. Joe said a couple things when he was here last week that really made sense. He talked about life after football and about playing before 84,000 people, and playing schools like Notre Dame and Southern California."

    Phil Groz, of Blue White Illustrated, called Brady, "The best tight end prospect in the country."

    The Pennsylvania native certainly lived up to his hype, being named an All-American in 1994 and making the All-Big Ten team twice.

    After college, Brady was the ninth-overall pick in the 1995 NFL draft by the New York Jets. He played for the Jets, Jaguars and Patriots before retiring in 2008 with 3,519 career receiving yards.

Center: Stefen Wisniewski

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    With the last name of Wisniewski, Stefen was destined to be a lineman for the Nittany Lions. His father, Leo, was a nose tackle while his uncle Steven was a two-time All-American guard at Penn State.

    The younger Wisniewski received offers from Michigan, Northwestern and West Virginia, but chose to follow the path of his family to Penn State.

    In high school, Wisniewski was a stand out at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh, playing on both the offensive and defensive lines. During his senior season, he was selected as a U.S. Army All-American and earned first team Class AAAA Associated Press All-State honors.

    ESPN had him rated as the top Penn State recruit for 2007, ranking 131 in the ESPN 150 for that class. had the 4-star lineman ranked in the top 100, at No. 83.

    While at Penn State, Wisniewski proved that he was a solid lineman at the collegiate level. He was named to the All-Big Ten team in both his junior and senior years and was an All-American in 2010.

    Not only was he a talented player on the field, he also excelled in the classroom, becoming the first Penn State player to be named an ESPN Academic All-American three different times.

    Wisniewski was taken in the second round, number 48 overall, by the Oakland in the 2011 NFL draft and is currently the Raiders' starting center.

Defensive Line: Mike Reid

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    Penn State has had many highly-recruited defensive linemen over the years. While guys like Courtney Brown, Tamba Hali and Maurice Evans received a lot of attention, it didn't seem fair to leave one of the best defensive players in school history off the list.

    Defensive tackle Mike Reid played for the Nittany Lions in the late '60s, hence there is little recruiting data about him available now.  

    However, it's probably safe to assume that he was among the better recruits back in his day.

    In high school, Reid was named to the Parade High School All-American in 1964. Though he was listed as a running back when he received the award, he found a home on the defensive line in Happy Valley.

    During his senior season in 1969, he lead the Nittany Lions on defense by making 89 tackles.

    That same season, he was a unanimous All-American and won both the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's best interior lineman, and the Maxwell Award, which is given to the best collegiate player. On top of those accolades, Reid also finished 5th in the Heisman voting that year.

    Reid is a member of Sports Illustrated's All-Century Team.

    He was drafted seventh overall in the 1970 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, twice being named to the Pro Bowl in his four seasons.

    The former Penn State tough guy was so talented that after his football career was over, he enjoyed a successful career as a musician/songwriter, even winning a Grammy in 1984.

    With all those talents, how could Reid not be the best defensive line recruit in Penn State history?

Linebacker: Dan Connor

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    It's no surprise that when thinking about great linebackers at Penn State, the names just keep coming. Penn State was coined "Linebacker U" thanks to the likes of Dennis Onkotz, Andre Collins, Lavar Arrington, Shane Conlan and the many others who stood out at that position.

    When talking about the best linebacker recruit, Dan Connor has to be at the top of the list.

    Connor was highly sought after while he was at Strath Haven High School in Pennsylvania. As a fullback and linebacker, he helped lead the team to 14 straight victories. For his high school career, he racked up 461 tackles, 38 sacks and 19 interceptions. 

    He was one of the top recruits in the nation, being named to the 2003 USA Today All-USA team.

    Connor was a 5-star prospect according to and ranked as the 14th overall recruit.

    The Pennsylvania native chose the Nittany Lions over several big-time schools, such as, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

    Connor had a spectacular collegiate career, finishing as the leader in career tackles at Penn State with 419. He was named an All-American in 2007.

    He went on to be drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. Connor became a member of the Dallas Cowboys in 2012, but was released in 2013.

    The Penn State great is currently a member of the New York Giants.

Defensive Back: Justin King

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    Justin King followed fellow 5-star recruit Derrick Williams to Happy Valley in 2005. King, a defensive back from Gateway High School near Pittsburgh, was a highly popular recruit.

    Florida, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Miami and USC all had hopes of landing the talented prospect.

    In the end, King chose to stay in-state and wear the blue and white. Perhaps his stepdad, Terry Smith, who was a receiver for the Nittany Lions from 1988-1991, had some influence on his decision.

    King was ranked by as the 15th-best recruit in the country and the No. 2 cornerback.

    In high school, he played both running back and cornerback. During his senior year at Gateway, he rushed for 1,795 yards with 30 touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, King made 30 tackles, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

    His efforts in high school earned him the honor of being named to the Parade High School All-American team .


    King has blazing speed and even better quickness. He plays running back and cornerback at the high school level and projects as a cover corner at the next level. King has got to be one of the fastest and quickest prospects in the country.

    The cornerback came to Penn State with a lot of hype, but never really reached his full potential. He did make some key plays and was a solid contributor to the team, but didn't materialized into the top-level recruit that he was projected to be.

    King left Penn State after his junior season to enter the NFL. He was taken in the fourth round by the St. Louis Rams. He's still in the league, currently playing for his home-town Pittsburgh Steelers.