Consider yourself lucky if you were born at the right time to watch Barkley play in a Penn State uniform. He was at a level of greatness that doesn’t come around often, and was likely the most electrifying player to ever play in Happy Valley. You knew there was always the chance of something unbelievable happening whenever #26 had the ball in his hands, as he continued do the unthinkable time after time during his three years as a Nittany Lion. The collection of Barkley’s highlights will forever live in Penn State lore, and despite him fading off the Heisman radar his junior season, there was no disputing who was the nation’s best overall player.
The message boards were sounding off the day Robinson committed to the Nittany Lions. But instead of a wasted scholarship as some feared, Robinson became arguably the best wide receiver in school history. He suited up as a true freshman in 2011, and then exploded as a sophomore with 1,078 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. For his finale, Robinson set single-season school records for receptions and receiving yards, creating a long reel of eye-popping highlights along the way. And as Michigan learned in 2013, if you absolutely NEED a big play, Robinson was there to deliver.
3. Trace McSorley
On paper, it seemed as though McSorley may never rise to starting quarterback at Penn State - or even remain on the offensive side of the ball. It didn’t take long to prove he had something special. In his first year as a starter, McSorley led a magical Big Ten Championship campaign that even the most ardent Nittany Lions fan probably didn’t see coming. McSorley continued to pile up wins as he became one of the most beloved players in program history. It’s hard to come by many players with as much grit as McSorley, and despite the heartbreaking result, it was never more obvious than his mesmerizing performance against Ohio State in 2018. McSorley left Penn State as the all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and was fifth all-time in rushing touchdowns.
4. Micah Parsons
How good is Parsons? For starters, he led the team in tackles as a true freshman despite not even being a starter. Secondly, he’s in the top four players of the decade without even playing a season as an upperclassman. Parsons almost assuredly would have been sitting behind Barkley — maybe even challenging for the top spot — if he had played in 2020. We’ll have to settle for two years of memories and the promise of him becoming a true superstar at the next level.
5. Chris Godwin
Godwin was forced on the field as a true freshman as the program was in the midst of severe scholarship restrictions. But it more than paid off as he had his breakout game during the Pinstripe Bowl and never looked back. Godwin was the perfect fit to follow up after Allen Robinson left early for the NFL, with the ability to take over games and regularly win match-ups with some of the nation’s top defensive backs. Any Penn State fan knew what a value Godwin would be as a third round pick, as he developed into one of the best current wide receivers in the NFL.
6. Michael Mauti
Mauti would be among the top three if not for three torn ACLs during his time at Penn State, but his total contributions to the program can never be measured. He was Linebacker U.’s top linebacker of the decade and was the leader that the program desperately needed during the most tumultuous time in program history. When he was on the field he could do it all, making play after play to lead a standout defense at a time when the team’s success largely depended on keeping the opponents point total at a very low number.
7. Devon Still
Do you remember how Penn State was somehow on the top of the Big Ten standings in 2011 (before IT caused things to come crashing down) with barely a hint of offense? That was in large part because of Still’s ability to shut down the trenches, helping the defense end many plays before they even had a prayer of developing. Still’s accolades, such as being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, may have been overshadowed at the end of his Penn State career, but he is certainly among the several legendary figures to play along the Nittany Lions’ defensive line.
8. Pat Freiermuth
Like Parsons, Freiermuth makes this exclusive list without even reaching his junior season. That’s because he has a chance to go down as the best overall tight end in program history, which is extremely high praise considering the talented tight ends who have worn the blue and white. He was a difference-maker from the start, creating nearly-impossible match-ups with his blend of speed, power and athleticism. Not only is he also a standout blocker, but nearly ever makes mental mistakes like dropped passes, missed assignments or needless penalties, despite a lack of experience. You have to look awfully hard to find any pressing weaknesses in his game.
9. Yetur Gross-Matos
Gross-Matos showed flashes of his potential as a true freshman, then became one of the best defensive ends in the nation the following two years before declaring for the NFL Draft. Opposing offenses knew what he was capable of, but were routinely powerless to stop him. And when they focused on slowing him down, it opened the door for one or more of his counterparts to have a huge game. Whenever Gross-Matos was on the field, the sacks and TFLs piled up.
10 . Carl Nassib
Nassib might be the best story of an individual player of the decade. He managed to make the roster as a walk-on in 2011 even though he never became a starter at Malvern Prep. He did not see any playing time the following year, but made it on the field as a reserve in 2013 and 2014, finishing his redhsirt junior season with seven tackles. Then things absolutely exploded in 2015. There was buzz surrounding him all summer, but it seemed as though he would ultimately lose playing time to the younger defensive ends with four or five stars attached to their name. Instead, Nassib became the most dominating defensive lineman in college football that year. He was nearly unstoppable, producing 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles (leading the nation in both categories), and an interception despite missing three games with an injury. Hopefully, he found time to build a new trophy case after spending the month of December picking up a slew of honors, including the Lombardi, Hendricks, LOTT Impact awards, as well as being named Defensive Player of the Year by CBS and the Big Ten, and a consensus first-team All-American.
Honorable Mention: Miles Sanders, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Adrian Amos, Jordan Lucas, Gerald Hodges, Brandon Bell, Mike Hull, Anthony Zettel