In 2011, Penn State had the 34th-best recruiting class in the nation, according to Scout.com. It was the final class fully assembled by Joe Paterno.
Among the 16 signees, six were ranked as 4-star players, nine as 3-stars and one as a 2-star. There were nine offensive players, six defensive players and a kicker. While a good portion of the group has gone on to play meaningful snaps in blue and white, some never got their opportunity in Happy Valley.
Cornerback Shyquawn Pullium never made it Penn State, opting to instead sign with Blinn Junior College. Offensive tackle Ryan Nowicki transferred to Illinois when the sanctions were levied by the NCAA, while defensive end Shawn Oakman was dismissed from the team in early 2012 for violating team rules.
Oakman's been the most successful of the three. After a fine 2013 season with Baylor, he was recently named Honorable Mention Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
There have been plenty of members from the 2011 class who have been valuable contributors at Penn State over the last few years. Let's take a look at the top five members of the 2011 class, based on individual production to date.
According to Scout.com's rankings, Belton was rated as 4-star recruit. He was the 11th-ranked wide receiver and the 85th-best player overall in the country in 2011.
Penn State's second-most highly rated recruit that year, Belton is fifth on the list because of the Nittany Lions' running back depth. He's split time with Zach Zwinak over the last two seasons, limiting his chances to put up bigger numbers.
Belton played sparingly during his freshman campaign, seeing time as a slot receiver and in the wildcat formation. When Bill O'Brien took over in 2012, Belton made the switch to running back. He's played there ever since.
In his three years as a Nittany Lion, Belton has rushed for over 100 yards on three occasions. His largest single-game output came this year, when he ran for 201 yards in a win over Illinois.
Regardless of how well he performs in 2014, Belton will always be remembered for scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat Michigan in quadruple overtime this past year.
Rated as a 4-star recruit by Scout.com, Smith was one of six Nittany Lions ranked by the site as one of the best 300 players in the nation. He was listed as the 12th-best offensive tackle in the class and the 109th-best player overall.
Smith took over as Penn State's starting left tackle in 2012 after redshirting during the 2011 season. He started nine games in his first full season despite being nagged by injuries along the way. In 2013, he started 10 games.
Like many in this 2011 Nittany Lion class, Smith is a legitimate NFL prospect. He was even sought after by 50 schools during the summer of 2012, when Penn State players could transfer without penalty. Cory Giger of The Altoona Mirror had this to say about Smith's draft prospects:
If Smith progresses as expected and continues to get stronger - and since he'll be playing in a pro-style offense that throws the ball a lot - he has a chance to develop into a top 10 pick, if not higher.
Since arriving at Penn State, Bill O'Brien has thought highly of Smith. He expected the Maryland native to be a mainstay on the offensive line from the beginning.
Barnes, a 3-star recruit according to Scout.com, was rated as the 33rd-best high school defensive end in 2011. After taking a redshirt during his first year at Penn State, Barnes exploded onto the scene in 2012.
That year, Barnes was arguably the Nittany Lions' most disruptive player. The Philadelphia native finished the 2012 season with 27 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year at season's end.
Barnes' production slipped a bit in 2013—he only had four tackles for loss and two sacks—but he continued to be another cog on Penn State's defensive line.
Barnes is one of the more promising prospects that the Nittany Lions have on their roster. At the beginning of the 2013 season, NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Dane Brugler listed Barnes as Penn State's top prospect for the 2014 NFL draft.
It's unlikely that Barnes leaves for the NFL this year, but if he continues to develop, he'll sure find himself playing on Sundays eventually.
Like Belton, Amos was another member from the Class of 2011 who saw meaningful snaps right away.
A middle-of-the-pack recruit, Amos was rated as a 3-star recruit by Scout.com. He was the 108th-best safety recruit in the nation.
Playing in 12 games as a freshman, he made 13 tackles and picked off a pass. In 2012 and 2013, Amos was more heavily relied on in the secondary, and his numbers reflected that—over the course of 24 games, he notched 94 tackles, broke up eight passes and had three interceptions.
He's been a jack of all trades during his Penn State career, playing cornerback, safety and even spending time in the return game. He's been a consistent performer throughout.
Amos will look to have yet another productive year in 2014, providing leadership to a young secondary in whatever ways he can. CBSSports.com currently has Amos ranked as the 16th-best cornerback in the 2015 NFL draft.
Robinson has easily been the best player from the 2011 class. He was also one of the most unheralded back then, too.
A 3-star prospect according to Scout.com, Robinson was ranked as the 108th-best wide receiver in the entire class. Here is an excerpt from his Scout.com Player Evaluation:
He has very good hands and has shown that he can make tough grabs whether he's going up high over a defender, or catching short passes with defenders all over his back. He shows good awareness around the sidelines. He's not a blazer though and is not a big threat after the catch.
While most of that assessment is dead on, there is one thing that sticks out—the part that says Robinson "is not a big threat after the catch." Over the past two seasons, Robinson has been exactly that—picking up chunks of extra yardage after the catch. This particular play from the Ohio State game this year shows just how dangerous he is once the ball is in his hands.
In 35 career games, Robinson has caught 177 passes for 2,479 yards and 17 touchdowns. He already owns the Penn State records for most receiving yards and receptions in a single season. A two-time Big Ten Receiver of the Year award winner, Robinson now has to decide whether to stay in State College or enter the 2013 NFL draft.