Is Saquon Barkley the best-ever Penn State running back to hit the NFL?
The consensus pick as the best current RB in the league, he’s been hampered by injury in his sophomore campaign. However, Barkley in his first pro season (1,307 rushing yards, 91 catches, 15 TDs, 2,028 yds from scrimmage) vaporized the souls of every NFC East defense.
Penn State football has a rich history in the NFL with multiple players drafted each year that go on to long and successful NFL careers. As we’ve also seen, though, via the high-visibility struggles of Ki-Jana Carter, Courtney Brown and more, success at PSU isn’t always a fast-track to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Here’s a look at Penn State standouts in signature positions who actualized their college success into the stuff of NFL greatness.
Best quarterback: Kerry Collins
Kerry Collins is the most successful NFL quarterback in Penn State football history to date. As a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Collins led the 1995 Nittany Lions to an undefeated season, ending with a Rose Bowl victory over USC and setting several passing records.
He was the fifth overall pick in the 1995 draft to the newly franchised Carolina Panthers and propelled the two-year-old team to an NFC Championship appearance. Collins went to Super Bowl XXXV with the Giants in 2001, and his NFL career spanned 17 years; he remains 18th on the NFL’s all-time list for passing yards.
Honorable mentions: Todd Blackledge (oh, what might have been), Michael Robinson (converted to RB in NFL), Chuck Fusina, John Hufnagel (Legendary CFL status respectfully acknowledged)
Best running back: Franco Harris
Franco Harris’ career NFL accomplishments stand alone but when your signature moment is recognized as the greatest play in NFL history, you hold the ultimate tiebreaker.
While at Penn State, Harris gained over 2,000 yards rushing and scored 24 touchdowns. And Harris’s professional career gave him nine Pro Bowl nods and four Super Bowl wins with the Steelers.
Harris will be remembered most for the “Immaculate Reception” during the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game, where a deflected pass and 22 seconds left on the clock saw him churn miraculously into the endzone, get mobbed by his teammates and kickstart a decade of dominance for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the Backfield: Lenny Moore, Curt Wager, John Cappelletti
- Lenny Moore. Known for his speed, Moore scored 24 touchdowns in 27 games between 1953 and 1955 and held several school rushing and defensive records. Moore’s 1954 season started the Penn State team on an upward trajectory that would last decades. Eleven seasons, 5,000+ yards, 5 first-team all NFL nods and 63 TDs explain in depth why the Hall of Fame halfback more than deserved being picked ninth overall in the 1956 draft by the then-Baltimore Colts.
- Curt Warner, a two-time All American, led his team in rushing and brought the school its first national championship in 1983. That same year, he was drafted third overall by the Seattle Seahawks and was named AFC Rookie of the Year. Warner was selected for three Pro Bowls during his seven-year NFL career and his 6,800+ yards/ 56 TDs show he packed a lot of value into a short period of time.
- John Cappelletti deserves his spot amongst the greats for being Penn State’s first — and, to date, only — Heisman Trophy winner. The All-American earned recognition by helping the Nittany Lions to a perfect 12-0 season, and was also awarded the Maxwell Trophy and lauded as Player of the Year. He was a first-round draft pick for the Los Angeles Rams, and his professional career spanned 9 years – 8 of which his teams made it to the playoffs.
Honorable mention: Larry Johnson (2 huge 1,700-yard seasons dazzled but injuries kept him off the field far more than he deserved)
Unrealized potential: Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, DJ Dozier
Best receiver: Bobby Engram
Hands down, this honor goes to Bobby Engram, who still holds the school record for receiving yards and touchdowns. He was the very first recipient of the Fred Biletnikoff Award for best receiver in college football. Drafted by the Chicago Bears, Engram spent 14 years in the NFL.
Still en route: Allen Robinson
Deserving of mention is current Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson, who broke the Penn State record for receptions in a single season with 77 catches and won the Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in 2012 and 2013. Robinson was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the sixty-first overall pick in 2014.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Jurevicius, O.J. McDuffie, Michael Timpson, Chris Godwin
Best kicker: Robbie Gould
Robbie Gould was a Penn State walk-on who achieved a perfect record of 29 extra points in his freshman year. Undrafted in 2005 after being cut from the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens, Gould won the Bears kicking competition and helped them reach Super Bowl XLI.
Gould became the Bears’ all-time leading scorer during his 11 seasons with the franchise, making a record 276 of 323 field goals (85.4%) before going on to play for the Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
Honorable mentions: Chris Bahr, Matt Bahr (The Bahr brothers combined put up the best NFL stats but who could pick just one?)
Best defensive lineman: Rosey Grier
Rosey Grier came to Penn State on a track and field scholarship but soon found football. Known as a gentle giant, he was a force on the football field. Drafted by the Giants in 1956, Grier took them to several conference championships. In 1963, he was traded to the Rams and became part of the “Fearsome Foursome,” arguably the best defensive line in football.
Best offensive lineman: Mike Munchak
Mike Munchak, a nine-time Pro Bowler drafted eighth overall by the Steelers, will go down as one of Penn State’s greatest offensive linemen. He was part of the 48-14 routing of the Pittsburgh Panthers in 1981, and went on to start 156 career games during his time in the NFL. Munchak was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Toeing the line: Mike Michalske, Tamba Hali, John Urschel
- One of the earliest Penn State greats, “Iron Mike” Michalske played guard, end, tackle, and fullback during his college years, and was an All-American in 1925. He scored the only two touchdowns of the Michigan State game of 1925, securing a win for the Nittany Lions. Michalske started his professional career with the short-lived New York Yankees before joining the Green Bay Packers for eight seasons and three titles. He was the first guard to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1964, and he made the 1920s All-Decade Team.
- Tamba Hali was an All-American defensive end, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2005, and Senior Bowl Defensive MVP in 2006. Drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs twentieth overall, Hali went to five consecutive Pro Bowls in his 12 years with the franchise.
- As notable for his post-NFL career as his football skills, offensive lineman John Urschel is an elite athlete and a doctoral candidate in mathematics at MIT. During his time at Penn State, Urschel won the Sullivan Award and the Campbell Trophy, and worked his way up from low-priority recruit to the starting line. He was picked up in the fifth round of the 2014 draft by the Ravens, and played three seasons before retiring to pursue his PhD.
Unrealized potential: Aaron Maybin, Courtney Brown
Best linebacker: Jack Ham
Where else to end this look at PSU icons than with the LBs of “Linebacker U.” Nearly 40 PSU linebackers have been picked in the first round to earn that moniker for LBU and several have lived up to the billing in the NFL.
You’ll find supporters of each of these elite LBs as the greatest Nittany Lion LB of all time (and a strong pro-Paul Posluszny camp, too, including Ham himself) but at the end of the day there’s no man like Ham.
Ham was an All-American who led Penn State for three winning seasons, breaking defensive records held for years and earning himself induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1975, Ham was selected for nine Pro Bowls (8 straight at one point) over his 12-year NFL career.
He earned his rep as one of the smartest, quickest and hardest-hitting players in the history of the game and helped take the Steelers to four Super Bowls. That’s a pedigree few, if any OLBs, can match.
One snap back: Shane Conlan, Matt Millen, LaVar Arrington
- Shane Conlan was named 1987’s Defensive Rookie of the Year as a Buffalo Bill and played with the team through three consecutive Super Bowls. Conlan went to the Pro Bowl three straight years as well (‘88-’90) before retiring early in 1995.
- Matt Millen earned All-America honors — and led Penn State to the National Championship — in 1978. Drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1980, he switched from defensive tackle to linebacker and helped lead three different teams to four Super Bowl Championship victories. Millen only received one career Pro Bowl nod but as the president and CEO of the Detroit Lions from 2001-2008 continued to make an impact in the NFL beyond the field.
- LaVar Arrington got his first start as a linebacker the second week of his sophomore year, and helped the Lions qualify for the Outback Bowl. In his junior year, he won the Butkus and Chuck Bednarik Awards. Drafted second to the Washington Redskins in 2000, Arrington went on to play in three Pro Bowls and is ranked as one of the 80 Greatest Redskins of All Time. A torn Achilles cut his career short after a brief season with the Giants and Arrington officially retired in 2007; he’s since founded his own football-training equipment company and coaches high school football.
Honorable mentions: Paul Posluszny, Dave Robinson, Sean Lee, NaVorro Bowman, Cameron Wake, Andre Collins, Greg Buttle
Who’s the next great Penn State player?
The Penn State football machine continues to produce A-list NFL prospects but only time will tell if players like Trace McSorley, Shareef Miller, and Miles Sanders will become the next Penn State success stories.
While Sanders has played his first few games with the Eagles, both Miller (Eagles) and McSorley (Ravens) are waiting to get their chance to prove themselves on the big stage.
As the 2019/2020 NFL season wraps with Super Bowl 54, revel in the history of PSU football and keep your eyes peeled for the former Lions in the lineup to pop a prop or futures bet on.