As Black Shoe Diaries celebrates its 10-year anniversary, we're marking the occasion by reflecting on an eventful decade for Penn State sports. Today, we look back at the best defensive players at each position since BSD's birth back in 2006.
Defensive end: Aaron Maybin
After redshirting his first year on campus and being used sparingly in 2007, Aaron Maybin burst onto the scene in 2008 out of seemingly nowhere—to the tune of being named an All-American and All-Big Ten player, as well as a finalist for the Hendricks and Bednarik awards. He parlayed that into a high draft pick, going in the first round (11th overall) to the Buffalo Bills.
Defensive tackle: Jordan Hill
Jordan Hill came to Penn State from Steelton, PA, a three-star recruit—and quickly stood out, seeing the field immediately in his true freshman year. He was an integral part of the two-deep his sophomore year and vaulted into the starting lineup his junior year (leading the defensive line in tackles that season), finishing his PSU career named to the first team All-Big Ten squad before being drafted in the third round in 2013 by the Seattle Seahawks.
Defensive tackle: Jared Odrick
A highly touted, four-star recruit, Jared Odrick picked Penn State over offers from SEC schools and other #elite programs. He was too talented to keep off the field and saw time in twelve games his true freshman season before grasping the starting position as a true sophomore and not relinquishing it over the next three seasons (save for injury). He was first-team All-Big Ten as both a junior and a senior, and first team All-American as a senior; he was also named Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. After that season, he was drafted in the first round (28th overall) by the Dolphins in 2010.
Defensive end: Josh Gaines
Josh Gaines redshirted his freshman year, 2004, but saw time almost immediately as a redshirt freshman in 2005 as Tamba Hali’s backup. As a redshirt sophomore he cracked the starting lineup, a position he never gave up for the duration of his time at PSU through the exhaustion of his eligibility after the 2008 season. Over his career as a Nittany Lion, he was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player and Academic All-Big Ten player.
Linebacker: Paul Posluszny
The easiest name to add to this list, Paul Posluszny was called the greatest linebacker to play for Penn State by none other than Jack Ham. A two-time Bednarik winner and (for some dubious reason) only one-time Butkus winner, Poz was a tremendous leader on and off the field, seeing time as a true freshman in 2003 and a second team All-Big Ten player his sophomore year. But it wasn’t until his junior season, the magical 2005 Big Ten Championship year, that he garnered national attention, and rose to true greatness, logging an insane 116 tackles on the year. In his senior season, in addition to winning the Bednarik a second time, he also was named an All-American for the second time and left the Nittany Lions their all-time tackle leader—a record broken shortly thereafter.
Poz was drafted in 2007 by the Bills in the second round, 34th overall; he’s had a prolific career amongst multiple teams, including a 2013 Pro Bowl appearance.
Linebacker: Dan Connor
Dan Connor was a very highly touted five star recruit when he came to Penn State, the number one recruit out of PA in the 2004 class and the #2 linebacker overall—and a top twenty overall recruit. That talent translated almost immediately, when he was thrust into a significant role his freshman year, seeing time in all twelve games and starting four and ending the season second on the team in tackles. He finished his first year on the team named to multiple All-Freshman teams before starting his sophomore year on the two-deep again. Halfway through the 2005 season he was again too talented to not start, and he never again gave up that starting role while in Happy Valley. After Poz’s wins in 2005 and 2006, Connor was the third PSU ‘backer to win the Bednarik award in a row when he won the award his senior season, when he was named back to back All-American and All-Big Ten. He finished his PSU career with the most tackles in Penn State history, surpassing his teammate Posluszny, and was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2008 draft.
Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman
While Connor and Poz were virtual locks, the third linebacker spot was up for grabs. The slot was ultimately given to NaVorro Bowman, however, due to the turnaround he displayed on the field (and off) and his excellent production on the field in 2008 and 2009. When Sean Lee, the other possible candidate, went down with a season-ending injury in the 2008 preseason, there was widespread concern as to who was going to step up in Lee’s place—and Bowman filled that void admirably, finishing the season with 106 tackles (1st on the Big Ten-winning team) and was first team All-Big Ten. He followed that junior campaign up with a solid senior season, playing next to Lee, and was instrumental in the team’s Capital One Bowl win over LSU.
Bowman was drafted in the third round in 2010 by the 49ers, where he’s had a stellar pro career, including becoming a Pro Bowler.
Cornerback: Justin King
Justin King was drafted as an athlete, the number one player in the state of PA in the 2005 recruiting and a great compliment to Derrick Williams. As a true freshman in 2005, King played mostly on the offensive side of the ball and some on defense, but he flipped exclusively to cornerback, the position he was recruited as, as a sophomore, and started that position every game that season and was 2nd team All-Big Ten. His junior year was even better, when he was named 1st team All Big Ten and Academic All Big Ten; he then was drafted in 2008 by the Rams in the fourth round.
Free Safety: Adrian Amos
Yet another true freshman thrust into the spotlight early on, Adrian Amos was a three-star recruit out of Maryland who saw time in every game his first year, mostly as a nickel back. He started every game his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, and was honorable mention All-Big Ten all three years. Perhaps most importantly, his name was rarely called as a sophomore and junior cornerback—opposing offensive coordinators tried to avoid his side of the field. In 2015, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Bears, and started that season for Chicago.
Safety: Anthony Scirrotto
Anthony Scirrotto, like so many defensive backs, played immediately as a true freshman, but it wasn’t until his sophomore season that he had a true impact on the field. He started every game in 2006, on the field for the most snaps of any player, on his way to All-Big Ten honors and leading the conference in interceptions. His junior year, he led Penn State in interceptions—but he wasn’t named All-Big Ten again until his senior campaign. Scirrotto was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2009—but not by the NFL.
Cornerback: Jordan Lucas
It may seem premature to put Jordan Lucas, who played for PSU through the 2015 season, on this list. But defensive back has been a position of relative weakness on Penn State defenses, despite the recent influx of talent, and Alan Zemaitis played over ten years ago. And Lucas played well, over and over, year after year; a relatively unheralded three-star recruit out of Massachusetts whose Penn State offer was the biggest one on his plate, he saw time in all twelve games of his true freshman season before starting immediately as a true starter, in all games in 2013, and not relinquishing that starting spot until injury derailed him. As both a sophomore and junior, he was named an honorable mention All-Big Ten cornerback; as a junior and senior, though, he was seen as dangerous—and opposing teams avoided his side of the field if at all possible, the mark of a good DB. Lucas was drafted in 2016 in the sixth round, by Miami.
Punter: Jeremy Kapinos
Before his prolific NFL career, Jeremy Kapinos was a key cog in the Paterno special teams machine of the 2004-2006 teams, and one of the reasons why the 2004 teams didn’t get blown out worse than they did. Kapinos finished his PSU career having been the starting punter for three seasons, with 181 punts under his belt and an average of just under 42 yards per punt and a long of 78 yards. He ended his time as a Lion as a Ray Guy finalist and went undrafted in 2007, originally signing with the Jets before bouncing around to the Packers, Colts and ultimately the Steelers.
Punt returner: Derrick Williams
Derrick Williams appeared on our list yesterday as kick returner—and for good reason. He’ll go down not just as a good wide receiver for Penn State—the #1 all around recruit in the 2005 class, who rejuvenated the Nittany Lions when he committed to the program. He’s, to date and possible forever, the only Penn State player to score an offensive, kick return, and punt return touchdown in a single game. He was electric whenever he touched the ball—like there would ever be another choice in this spot?