The Penn State football program's fall from grace took another step downward Monday morning with the NCAA's announcement of the sanctions levied against the school for its lack of action regarding the various child molestation accusations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. The Nittany Lions are forced to vacate all wins since 1998 and have been hit with a $60 million fine, scholarship reductions over the next four years and a postseason ban for the same time period.
In terms of its status as NFL feeder program, though, Penn State has been on the decline for some time.
In the 1970s and '80s, the school known as "Linebacker U" had 36 second-level defenders selected in the NFL draft -- more than any other school. In fact, Penn State players were drafted more often than those from any other school in the 1980s, with 71 Nittany Lions selected from 1980 to 1989.
Over the past 20 years, however, those numbers have steadily decreased. PSU tied with Notre Dame and Florida State with 10 linebackers picked in the '90s, and then matched Auburn's 12th-best total of six during the 2000s. The Nittany Lions' overall standing among colleges in total prospects drafted took a corresponding turn, with their ranking dropping to seventh in the '90s, and then to 16th the following decade.
The school's 2010 draft class did produce two excellent linebackers in Sean Lee and NaVorro Bowman, who are starring for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. But Penn State still ranks outside the top 10 to 15 programs in terms of NFL talent. The scholarship reductions (PSU can only sign 15 recruits in each of the next four classes, instead of the typical 25) and the fact that players are free to transfer away from the program could lead to another drop in production of pro-caliber prospects.
One positive: New head coach Bill O'Brien might be able to use his successful run as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator to entice some good recruits to take a chance on Penn State because of his relationships with NFL teams. The late Joe Paterno was known in NFL circles as being one of the most restrictive coaches in the country in terms of allowing access to his players, coaches and practices. Opening the doors a bit could improve relations between the school and the league.
But for now, O'Brien will undoubtedly try to convince the few senior Nittany Lions with true NFL potential to stick around for their final season. If successful in keeping the following five players, he'll lean on their leadership abilities and talent to hold the ship together through its rockiest year.
Gerald Hodges, 6-foot-2, 233 pounds, OLB
Hodges is a converted safety who is growing into an NFL starting Sam linebacker's frame. He still has the movement skills to bring down ball carriers in space (leading Penn State with 106 tackles in 2011), stay with receivers and tight ends in coverage and chase down quarterbacks in occasional forays into the backfield (10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks last season). If he continues to add bulk while maintaining his athleticism and production, he'll be a solid top-100 pick capable of starting on either the strong or weak side of the formation.
Michael Mauti, 6-2, 239, ILB
Some scouts will see similarities between Mauti and former Penn State star Paul Posluszny when watching him get through traffic to make stops in the run game. He's a strong, instinctive player, even if not the biggest, quickest or most fluid of athletes. Unfortunately, he only managed to start four games in 2011 before suffering a torn left ACL -- just two years after tearing the same ligament in his right knee prior to his sophomore season. A healthy season stuffing running backs in the hole, using his strong hands to shed oncoming offensive linemen and showing enough athleticism to handle zone-coverage responsibilities over the middle could make him a valued prospect.
Jordan Hill, 6-1, 298, DT
Penn State always seems to find undersized but extremely active defensive tackles to complement the athletic behemoths known by more casual football fans. Last season, while Devon Still was getting the headlines and earning a second-round draft slot (Cincinnati Bengals), Hill was a quiet thorn in the side of opposing offensive lines with his hustle and strong instincts. He garnered honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from league coaches with 59 total tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Hill lacks the bulk most scouts like to see in the interior defensive line, but like other lesser-known PSU tackles Anthony Adams, Jay Alford, Ed Johnson and Ollie Ogbu, Hill possesses the quickness off the snap and strength to be an effective pro as a mid-round pick.
Matt Stankiewitch, 6-3, 295, C
After patiently waiting his turn to become the starting pivot on Penn State's offensive line, Stankiewitch played solid football for the Nittany Lions in 2011 -- not only starting every contest, but leading the linemen in snaps. Now the 2012 Rimington Trophy watch list honoree is the team's only returning starter up front, and could be on scouts' radar because of his strength and toughness. His athleticism won't wow general managers or coaches, but he's more than capable of staying in front of pass-rushing tackles and making himself a nuisance as a run blocker in space. In any case, O'Brien and the rest of the coaching staff will certainly gush about Stankiewitch's leadership, effort and work ethic.
Justin Brown, 6-3, 209, WR
The team's leading returning receiver (35 catches, 517 yards, two touchdowns last season) hasn't truly broken out yet, but has the physical attributes to do so if the Nittany Lions' passing attack makes strides in 2012, in spite of everything surrounding the program. His size makes him a threat down the sideline, and he has been used in the slot, as well, to take advantage of his height advantage over the middle. Though it takes him time to get to his top speed (which is average, at best), Brown has the footwork to run fair routes inside and outside and some agility to avoid arm tackles after the catch. Scouts might consider him a solid possession-receiver prospect if he shows better straight-line speed than anticipated and limits drops during his senior campaign.