Penn State Football: Top 5 NFL Prospects on the Nittany Lions Roster
Penn State's football program has a rich history of talented players, some of whom were fortunate enough to see that talent translate over to the NFL. The Nittany Lions have had six former players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, making them one of 11 schools to have at least five inductees. At the start of the 2013 NFL season, there were 26 former players on rosters across the league.
Jordan Hill, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti were all drafted out of Penn State last year by NFL teams. With a coaching staff that has plenty of NFL experience, the program hopes to send more players to the professional ranks in the coming years.
Here is a list of the top NFL prospects—and some who just missed the cut—currently on the Nittany Lions' roster.
While they didn't make the list, here are a few other Nittany Lions who could certainly be on their way to productive careers in the NFL.
Adrian Amos, S: Amos has played multiple positions during his career at Penn State, spending time at both cornerback and safety. A rare combination of speed and strength, Amos could put himself in good position for the 2015 NFL Draft with a strong showing next year.
Glenn Carson, MLB: Although overshadowed by the likes of Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti the past few years, Carson is stepping into his own this season as the next great player from "Linebacker U." He's first on the team in tackles with 39 and is without question the leader on defense.
Kyle Carter, TE: After bursting on the scene last year as a redshirt freshman, Carter has been hampered lately by injuries. Even though Penn State has seen an influx of tight end involvement with Bill O'Brien's scheme, Carter is one of the top threats in the offense when healthy.
Akeel Lynch, RB: A native of Canada, Lynch's 7.7 yards per carry is good enough for ninth in the NCAA. Despite being labeled as the next great Penn State running back, he is stuck behind Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton and has seen limited action—for now.
John Urschel, OG: A mainstay on Penn State's offensive line since 2011, Urschel will likely be selected at some point in the NFL Draft after the season. But if an NFL career isn't in the works, Urschel seems to have a pretty solid fallback plan lined up—the bonafide math wiz is currently working toward his master's degree and even taught a trigonometry class this past summer.
5. Deion Barnes, DE
Entering the 2013-14 season, Barnes very well could have been the top name on this list. However, his production has slipped this year and so might has his stock for the 2014 NFL Draft. Still, the redshirt sophomore has shown a lot of promise since the start of last year.
To begin 2012, Barnes figured to be included in the rotation and get some playing time. Not only did he play, but he shined on an already impressive Penn State defensive line that included Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones. Barnes finished the year with six sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles en route to winning the Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year Award.
Barnes has very good speed for the position, and his ability to get off blocks and make plays behind the line of scrimmage is something that intrigues scouts. Barnes needs to add muscle to fill out his 6'4", 245-pound frame and work on some things from a technique standpoint so that he can better prepare himself for the NFL game.
Dane Brugler, a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, says Barnes is still trying to grow into his body and learn the position but has the room to vastly improve:
Barnes is still figuring out how to best use his hands and his pass rush moves are a work-in-progress, but the early results are promising. He is motivated, coachable and plays with a good on-field motor and is considered a good worker away from the field.
After leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss as a freshman, the expectations will only rise for Barnes in 2013, but if he continues to develop, the sky is the limit for him as a pass rusher.
Barnes might not be the best prospect on Penn State's defense right now in terms of making an immediate impact, but he certainly has the most potential.
4. DaQuan Jones, DT
Since 2010, Penn State has had three defensive tackles taken in the NFL Draft. DaQuan Jones will become the fourth in a few months.
The senior has been disruptive in the middle this season while totaling 30 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. After spending his first three years playing next to Devon Still and Jordan Hill, all eyes are finally on Jones.
At 6'3" and 318 pounds, Jones has enough versatility to play in a 4-3 scheme or be a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme if he can put on a bit more weight. It will be interesting to see what a team considering him would want—Jones slimmed down this season to be more productive, but someone capable of playing the nose tackle position at a high level is very hard to come by.
Jones is a guy who possesses very good speed for a player his size. Even if he's engaged by multiple defenders, he is able to use his strength to shed blocks and make plays in the backfield. He has good hand technique and rarely gets blown off the ball.
While it's still hard to gauge where Jones might go come April, talent evaluator Gil Brandt of NFL.com thinks that Jones is the best defensive tackle in the country.
The fact that Jones is a solid defensive line prospect speaks volumes to the job Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson has done over the years. Jones is clearly the most talented senior on this team and with a good rest of the season and strong showing at the Scouting Combine, he could really see his draft stock rise.
3. Donovan Smith, OT
Other than the quarterback, the left tackle position is considered one of the most important building blocks in an NFL offense. Redshirt sophomore Donovan Smith is currently the cornerstone at the position for the Nittany Lions, and by all means projects to continue that at the next level.
Like Carter and Barnes, Smith contributed right off the bat last season as a redshirt freshman. Already possessing the body of an NFL left tackle (he's 6'5" and weighs 322 lbs), Smith helped pave the way for 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak last year and protected Matt McGloin's blindside in the Nittany Lions' productive passing attack. Despite struggling with some leg injuries, Smith has been an anchor on the left side of Penn State's offensive line.
Smith is very mobile for his size and is vicious when engaging oncoming defenders. He's very good in the run game, and while he could stand to work on some of his pass blocking techniques, he's pretty advanced in that aspect for a 20-year-old kid. He's shown enough so far, as Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror writes, to warrant comparisons to another Penn State left tackle who was a top pick:
Some have called Smith the Lions' best offensive line prospect since Levi Brown, the last PSU lineman to be drafted in the first round (2007).
He's been a key piece on the Lions' offensive line and will continue to increase his draft stock if he sticks around another year or two to develop further. So far, all signs point to Smith being a franchise left tackle in the NFL—so much so that he received 50 scholarship offers when Penn State players were able to transfer without penalty last summer due to the NCAA sanctions.
2. Christian Hackenberg, QB
A prized 5-star recruit who set foot on campus just four months ago, Hackenberg came to Happy Valley as one of the biggest Nittany Lion recruits in recent memory—if not of all time.
The true freshman has started all five games this year and has shown promise while slowly gaining more trust from Bill O'Brien. Despite rough outings against Central Florida an Indiana, Hackenberg is playing well beyond his years, having thrown for 1,367 yards and eight touchdowns to date.
One of the main reasons why scouts have drooled over Hackenberg is because of how much he fits the mold of a prototypical NFL pocket passer. Not only does he look the part—he's every bit of the 6'4" he's listed at—but he plays the part, too. He has a very strong arm and possesses pinpoint accuracy on both short and deep passes. As ESPN's Trent Dilfer points out, Hackenberg throws an above-average ball for a kid his age and exhibits exceptional poise:
The ball's electric coming out of his hand. He has great energy in his feet, he can move around the pocket.
As you study him on tape, when he's getting blitzed and there's chaos around him, there's no panic in him. There's no flinch. It's almost as if the game slows down.
The reason Hackenberg isn't No. 1 on this list is because he still has a long way to go in his college career. But if O'Brien can guide Matt McGloin from a former walk-on into an NFL quarterback—and that's in no way a knock on McGloin—then the sky appears limitless for Hackenberg so long as O'Brien is there to guide him.
1. Allen Robinson, WR
There hasn't been a player on Penn State's roster that's seen his stock skyrocket more than Robinson.
The junior wideout, who was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school and held only four scholarship offers, quickly emerged as the Lions' top receiving threat in 2012 and is a legitimate contender for the Biletnikoff Award this season. In only five games this year, Robinson has caught 38 passes for 621 yards and five touchdowns.
At 6'3", 210-pounds, Robinson certainly looks like an NFL receiver. He runs good routes and isn't afraid to catch the ball in traffic, and for a guy his size who has drawn tighter coverage, he always seems to find open spaces in the defense. One of the glaring weaknesses in his game is his lack of speed—Robinson isn't going to blow by defenders, but he can fit in as a good possession receiver in the NFL.
Robinson's 77 catches in 2012 broke the previous school record of 63. Not only is his name being brought up as one of the best Penn State receivers of all time, but he's garnered very high praise from the coaching staff as well.
In a September interview with The Daily Collegian's John McGonigal, Penn State wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said Robinson could be one of the most talented players he's ever coached.
“In my years of coaching wide receivers, [Robinson]’s one of the best, if not the best receiver I have had,” Hixon said. “When the time comes, he’s going to be ready [for the NFL].”
That time could very well come this April. If he decides to leave school early, Robinson could very well slip into the late first round if he continues his high level of play.