It's getting close to that time again when former college football players find out whether their dreams of playing professional football come true. Sixteen scholarship athletes played their last Penn State snap in 2011, and while some draft stocks are higher than others, every one of them tried their hand at Penn State's Pro Day last month (well, almost all - D'Anton Lynn sat out due to a minor injury). Over the next four weeks, culminating with the 2012 NFL Draft, which begins April 26, we'll take a look at the potential of each of these players.
First up are the players whose chances at making the next level are minimal, at best. While all 16 seniors worked out at Penn State's Pro Day, only seven of them participated in the NFL combine. The other nine are covered below.
FB - Joe Suhey
Career Stats: 53 carries, 160 yards, 1 rushing TD; 50 receptions, 477 yards, 3 receiving TD
Outlook: Suhey has been the more versatile of Penn State's two fullbacks in the past few years, but that might be his undoing if he hopes to make it to the next level. While Mike Zordich was a punishing lead blocker and short-yardage back, Suhey was the primary pass-catching and pass-blocking option in Penn State's system. Unfortunately for Suhey, the NFL is moving in a direction where few teams require a true fullback--and those that rely on that position would prefer someone more like the tough-nosed Zordich. If he's going to fit into a team's plans, it's going to be because of his versatility--he's athletic and a good enough pass-catcher to fit into a flex-type role, but if he's going to be counted on to play fullback, Suhey needs to get stronger, because as it was, he was never much of a road-grader during his college days.
RB - Stephfon Green
Career Stats: 285 carries, 1351 yards, 14 rushing TDs; 41 receptions, 453 yards, 1 receiving TD
Outlook: Stephfon Green's career at Penn State was one of unrealized potential. The first time he ever touched a football in a Nittany Lion uniform--at the 2008 Blue/White game--he rushed for an 80-yard touchdown. His speed and quickness became legendary before he ever suited up for a game. And yet, each year of his career, Green saw his role and playing time diminish further and further, last year finding himself in Joe Paterno's doghouse and out for the first five games of the season. Like Suhey, however, Green has the versatility to fill a number of roles for an NFL team, and unlike Suhey, he's got enough raw talent to make it worthwhile to spend a draft pick on him. Green could be an effective third-down back at the next level--he's a good enough pass blocker, and, though quickness is his game, was often called upon by Penn State's staff to pick up tough yards between the tackles. Although he wasn't really used in that position in college, it wouldn't be surprising to see a team look to utilize Green as a kick returner, too. Making the comparison to Kenny Watson is almost too easy, but it's a natural one--both were primarily back-ups in college, but Watson found his niche and stuck around in the pros for almost a decade. Of all these players, Green is likely the only one who can follow in his footsteps.
TE - Andrew Szczerba
Career Stats: 14 receptions, 116 yards
Outlook: Szczerba battled injuries his entire career, so it's difficult to pin his lack of performance on anything but all that playing time lost--though when he did manage to get in the game, Szczerba didn't really turn any heads. All that said, it's hard to imagine that teams will be champing at the bit to bring Szczerba aboard. Although he certainly looks the part of an NFL tight end, checking in at 6-6, 262 pounds, he ran a 5.12 second 40-yard dash at Penn State's pro day. For someone with so little experience to fall back on, that won't help him earn the benefit of the doubt from NFL scouts. And frankly, this generation of tight ends is nothing like the lumbering in-line blockers of days past--goodbye, Anthony Becht. They're freakish athletes like Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis who pose matchup problems first and foremost. If Szczerba is going to catch on, he'll have to prove himself a fantastic blocker, an extra offensive tackle of sorts, for a team that hasn't yet caught on to the appeal of the spread offense--think a Ben Hartsock or Matthew Mulligan type.
OL - Quinn Barham
Outlook: Barham was solid but unspectacular for two years as Penn State's starting left tackle, a consistent if never standout stalwart on a much-maligned unit. Penn State's failures along the offensive line were rarely Barham's fault--consistently during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Nittany Lions were a much better pass-blocking team than a run-blocking one, and as the protector of Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden's blind side, Barham kept them upright more often than not. Still, he lacks the prototypical size or strength that might cause some team to fall in love with his upside and spend a late-round draft pick on a project. On the flipside, though, Barham has the proven leadership as a team captain and the versatility, having seen time at all three line positions, that could help him wedge his way onto an NFL roster if he gets a shot, likely as an undrafted free agent.
OL - Chima Okoli
Outlook: Take everything we just wrote about Barham, change the name to "Okoli," and you've got, more or less, what the latter is looking at in terms of an NFL future. On a roster full of good guys, Okoli was one of the most well-spoken, engaging players I had the pleasure of coming into contact with, but that's probably going to help him go pro in something other than sports. After failing to crack even Larry Johnson's deep rotation at defensive tackle, Okoli filled in admirably, first when Big Lou Eliades went down in the 2010 season with an ACL injury, then as the starting tackle opposite Barham in his own right in 2011, but like Barham, the best thing you could say about Okoli was that he was always adequate. Though he's athletic and strong enough, Okoli doesn't have the elite footwork a 293-pound offensive lineman needs to really have a chance at the next level.
OL - DeOn'tae Pannell
Outlook: It's funny how the NFL works. For a couple of years, now, DeOn'tae Pannell has been one of the chief scapegoats among the Nittany Lion faithful for Penn State's poor offensive line performance--and not without cause--but because his mistakes were more often due to mental breakdowns than any physical deficiency, he's in a much better position than his aforementioned teammates to find a spot at the next level. Pannell is a giant, at 6-5, 323 pounds, with the size at guard that every line coach dreams about. Whether he gets the opportunity to put that size to use is up to the scouts, but he showed enough glimpses of pure athleticism during his playing days that he could stick if he does get that chance. Like Barham, he's got some veratility--the experience of a season playing tackle--so that ought to be a boon to his NFL hopes.
DL - Eric Latimore
Career Stats: 52 tackles (14.5 for loss), 7.5 sacks
Outlook: Just when it appeared he was ready to take the next step and break out at defensive end for Penn State, Eric Latimore could not shake the injury bug. He missed the entire second half of the 2010 season with a broken wrist, and never seemed to get himself untracked in 2011, losing his starting job to Sean Stanley. The tail end of his college career came as a disappointment given how promising it began--he followed a similar career trajectory to Jack Crawford, both showing hints of dynamic ability during their sophomore season only to find that potential unfulfilled. When at his best, Latimore was both a solid run stuffer at the strong-side defensive end, but also a capable pass rusher. He has excellent size to play defensive end in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 system, at 6-6, 283 pounds, and if he can return to 2009 form, some lucky team might find that they've got a solid contributor in their defensive line rotation. But the player who often took the field in 2011 for the Nittany Lions is one who would be out of place on an NFL field.
DB - Nick Sukay
Career Stats: 136 tackles, 27 passes defensed, 8 interceptions
Outlook: A three-year starter at safety, Sukay played the role of center fielder within Penn State's defense, and typically did so ably. In his three years, almost always patrolling the deep middle, only on very rare occasions did teams exploit that part of the field. Still, he had Nittany Lion fans holding their breath on more than one occasion, because he lacked the make-up speed to help him make up for mental mistakes, and because he, seemingly like the rest of the team, had difficulty whenever man coverage was required. That said, Sukay possesses good ball skills on those passes that don't have him retreating, and is an able enough tackler over the middle and against the run. Unfortunately, while Sukay was a good college player, it's hard to see him finding a home in the pros. He couldn't stick at free safety--he doesn't have the footspeed to play that position in the NFL--but if he can put on some weight without losing any speed, he has an outside shot at sticking around as a hybrid, in-the-box strong safety, much like the position Drew Astorino, and Mark Rubin before him, played at Penn State. At the next level, though,that position is filled typically by guys like LaRon Landry and Taylor Mays, great athletes who have size and speed that Sukay can't match. The injury history will linger--Sukay missed all or parts of three seasons due to serious injuries--but that won't hurt as much as his tweener status.
DB - Drew Astorino
Career Stats: 257 tackles, 25 passes defensed, 5 interceptions
Outlook: Like Sukay, Astorino started at safety for the Lions from 2009 until 2011, but as the team's nickel back during their Rose Bowl run in 2008, Astorino got a head start on playing time. As it was, Astorino was perhaps better suited for that nickel role--severely undersized as a strong safety, Astorino had a nose for the ball but often had difficulty making the play at the point of attack. He returned punts, but seemingly only to call fair catch. Astorino was a good college player, but there aren't many 5-9 strong safeties in the NFL, and he never proved that he could be particularly effective in coverage--like the similarly diminutive Brent Grimes did, even at the lower level that is Shippensburg football. Then again, Astorino was never really put in the position to do so. He's another guy with great leadership qualities, but I still have trouble seeing Astorino make a pro roster.