JoePa's Finest: The 10 Best Nittany Lions of the Decade
The "aught" decade has been nothing short of a roller coaster for Penn State fans.
It began rather traumatically in 2000, when fans dealt with the first losing season under Paterno since 1988. The real shock, though, was that the losing didn’t stop, as Penn State suffered sub-.500 marks in four of the decade’s first five seasons.
Following JoePa’s stern resistance to calls for his retirement, the team rebounded to win two Big Ten championships in the second half of the decade.
These are the players who I feel had the best careers in their years at Penn State. What they went on to accomplish—or not accomplish—in the pros was not taken into account.
Luckily for die-hard Penn State fans, plenty of talented players made their way through Happy Valley this decade.
These are some of the players who didn't quite make the top 10 list, but still deserve recognition for their contributions to the program this decade.
Some of these players were one-year wonders, while others never made the big play. For whatever reason, these players simply don't come to mind when thinking about the best of Penn State over the past decade. For that reason, they land on the honorable mention list.
Apologies to these twelve players, who you could easily argue deserved to be on the list:
No. 10: Tamba Hali (2002-2005)
Tamba Hali's journey to Happy Valley makes his accomplishments that much more impressive—Hali fled his war-torn home country of Liberia on his own at the age 10.
Hali came onto the football scene in 2004, while the Nittany Lions were struggling to a disappointing 4-7 year. In his first year as a starter, Hali was one of the leading tacklers on a young defense, garnering Second Team All-Big Ten honors.
In 2005, Hali truly burst onto the Big Ten and national scene. Hali was a 2005 consensus All-American, a unanimous selection as the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and a first team All-Big Ten selection following his senior season at Penn State.
During his 2005 campaign, Hali led the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, and his sack/forced fumble of Troy Smith in 2005 clinched what was likely the most memorable win of the decade for Penn State.
No. 9: Larry Johnson (1999-2002)
Despite his lack of consistent contributions in his four years under Paterno, Johnson sneaks onto the list because his 2002 season was THAT good.
Johnson—who is originally from State College—spent the majority of his first three years in JoePa’s doghouse.
When he finally got his head straight and his chance on the field, though, Johnson proved to be virtually unstoppable.
Johnson became just the ninth player in NCAA history to break 2,000 yards rushing in a season—averaging an NCAA record 8.0 yards per carry in the process.
Johnson won the Doak Walker Award, the Jim Brown Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award, and finished third in the Heisman voting.
Even with defenses loading up the box to stop him, Johnson literally carried the Nittany Lions to a 9-4 season, helping Penn State reach its first bowl since 1999.
No. 8: Jimmy Kennedy (1999-2002)
Jimmy Kennedy was recruited to Penn State after a decorated career as a prep player at Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, NY.
In his time in the blue and white, there is only one word to describe Kennedy’s play in the trenches: dominant.
Kennedy often looked like a man amongst boys, using his enormous frame and impressive athleticism to constantly disrupt opponent’s rushing attacks.
A three year starter, Kennedy was a two-time All-Big Ten Selection and was selected as the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2002.
Kennedy managed to stand out during some of Paterno’s worst years, and ultimately helped Penn State return to its winning ways by the time he left State College.
No. 7: Michael Robinson (2002-2005)
Some might question how Robinson made the list, while Daryll Clark did not. The answer has little to do with personal statistics and accolades, and everything to do with each player's impact on the program.
Robinson was always a recognized talent on the depth chart, but the problem was finding the right position for him while Zach Mills was calling the signals. Robinson bounced around from wide receiver, to running back, to occasional opportunities at quarterback during his first three years, before finally receiving the starting quarterback job in 2005.
Unlike Clark, Robinson inherited a team that was coming off of consecutive losing seasons, and still he led the team to an 11-1 record in 2005.
Robinson put together numerous memorable performances as the starting quarterback, leading a fourth-quarter comeback over Northwestern and practically willing the team to a victory over the referees—er—Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
Accompanied by a talented trio of freshman receivers and a stellar defense, Robinson led the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship and an epic Orange Bowl victory.
No. 6: Jared Odrick (2006-2009)
Odrick came to Penn State as a highly-touted prep from nearby Lebanon, Pa, and few ever questioned the hype that followed him to Happy Valley.
The former High School All-American, like many others before him, flourished under the guidance of defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr.
Odrick earned the starting defensive tackle job in his sophomore season, but didn’t gain notoriety until his junior year.
In 2008, Odrick started 11 games, and earned his first All Big-Ten selection. Those who familiar with the program would attest that the breakout seasons of Aaron Maybin and Navarro Bowman were made possible by Odrick, who constantly drew multiple blockers.
Even with defenses focusing on him, Odrick continued his dominance in 2009. His numbers were not outstanding, but league coaches and players understood the impact Odrick had on opposing offenses. Odrick earned his second All Big-Ten selection, and was also named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and Big Ten Defensive Player of the year during his senior year.
The Nittany Lions were 40-12 during Odrick’s four years at Penn State—years in which the defensive unit was consistently one of the best in the nation at stopping the run.
No. 5: Levi Brown (2003-2006)
Brown came to Penn State as a two-way star on the offensive and defensive lines from Norfolk, VA. After redshirting his freshman season, coaches decided Brown was best fit to play offensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.
Brown was a durable and consistent force on the offensive line under Paterno, starting nearly every game at left tackle in his four years at Penn State.
Brown finally began to receive national acclaim during Penn State’s breakout 2005 season, as he earned Second Team All-American and First Team All-Big Ten selections.
Brown was forced to lead an inexperienced offensive line and protect rookie quarterback Anthony Morelli during his senior season, but still played well enough to be selected as a Third Team All-American and Second Team All-Big Ten member.
Brown had an incredibly productive career protecting the blindsides of Zach Mills, Michael Robinson, and Anthony Morelli. The Arizona Cardinals noticed, as Brown was selected with the fifth pick in the 2007 NFL draft.
No. 4: Sean Lee (2005-2009)
The fact that Sean Lee is only number four on the list speaks volumes about the talent that has come through Happy Valley this decade.
Lee came to Penn State after a distinguished prep career at Pittsburgh area powerhouse Upper St. Clair and did not wait long to make his mark as a Nittany Lion.
After playing sparingly in his freshman season, Lee started the 2006 season and would go on to start 26 consecutive games throughout his sophomore and junior years.
Had it not been for injuries that sidelined him for all of his senior season, and parts of his fifth year, Tom Bradley believes Lee would have finished as the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history.
Instead, he spent his senior year on the sidelines, as a team captain and temporary coach, helping his fellow teammates reach the Rose Bowl in 2008.
Lee still returned to have a strong fifth year, unselfishly switching to middle linebacker and leading the Nittany Lions to another 11 win season.
Lee's leadership, toughness, and tenacity on the field despite his small stature will always be remembered by Penn State fans.
No. 3: Dan Connor (2004-2007)
Dennis Onkotz, Greg Buttle, Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, Paul Posluszny. These are the names that come to mind when thinking about Linebacker U.
And yet, Connor finished his career as the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history, ahead of all of these great players.
A five-star recruit out of high school, Connor had one of the most decorated careers in Penn State history.
After appearing on numerous All-Freshman teams after the 2004 season, Connor never slowed down, becoming a two-time All-Big Ten selection and a two-time All-American.
Connor received the Chuck Bednarik Award—given to the nation’s best defensive player—in 2007, and likely would have won it in 2006 had it not been for his teammate Paul Posluszny.
No. 2: Derrick Williams (2005-2008)
Some might wonder how Williams could climb this high on the list, given that he never earned the type of accolades one might expect from the No. 1 recruit in the country out of high school.
Williams's commitment to Penn State alone, though, helped begin the turnaround of a program that was at its lowest point of the Paterno era. After Williams signed with Penn State, the Nittany Lions immediately returned to the national scene on the recruiting trail and on field.
Williams was the ultimate all-purpose weapon, hauling in 145 receptions for 1,553 yards and 6 touchdowns, running the ball 94 times for 453 yards, and returning five kicks for touchdowns--a Penn State record.
While only earning All-Big Ten honors after his senior year, and having far less receptions than fellow receiver Deon Butler, Nittany Lions fans grew accustomed to watching Williams make a play when his team needed it.
Clutch touchdowns against Northwestern and Ohio State in his rookie season and special teams touchdowns that sparked victories in front of the "white house" over Notre Dame and Illinois were just some examples of Williams's big-play ability.
Williams should be remembered as much for what he didn't do as for what he did: he was never in legal trouble, he never caved to the pressure of being a big-time recruit, and he was never on a losing team at Penn State. These are accomplishments that the likes of Anthony Morelli, Justin King, and Austin Scott cannot claim.
No. 1: Paul Posluszny (2003-2006)
Where to start? Paul Posluszny is everything that a coach could ask for in a linebacker—and and then some.
Posluszny wore the No. 31 in honor of former Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan, but he quickly made a name for himself, and is now recognized as one of the best Nittany Lion players of all time.
A three-year starter at outside linebacker, and two-time captain, Posluszny led the Nittany Lion defense to its best years under Tom Bradley. He was instrumental in the development of future stars Dan Connor and Sean Lee, and did plenty to help his own cause in the process.
His breakout junior season earned him the Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus Awards as the College Defensive Player and Linebacker of the Year, respectively, joining Lavar Arrington as the second Nittany Lion to ever accomplish this feat.
Despite a serious knee injury suffered in the 2006 Orange Bowl, Posluszny returned to again win the Bednarik following his senior season, becoming only the second player—the other was Pat Fitzgerald—to win the award twice.
A class act on and off the field, “Poz” left Penn State as the career leader in tackles.
Any debate as to who is the face of Linebacker U was settled by legendary former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jack Ham.
"I truly believe," Ham said of Posluszny, "he's the best linebacker ever to play at Penn State."