Penn State football: The 10 most valuable players of the past decade
The first decade of the post-Paterno era of Penn State football needed a few good men.
Luckily for Nittany Lions fans, those men emerged to help the program persevere through sanctions and a media-driven storm of scorn. They provided grit and leadership. Some of them put Happy Valley back in a positive national spotlight by playing with spectacular flair and joy, making Beaver Stadium Whiteouts must-see TV. Some enhanced future recruiting by restoring the luster to their position group, ala Saquon Barkley for running backs and Micah Parsons for linebackers.
The past 2 seasons of .500 football notwithstanding, Penn State seems to be in a reasonably good place, and it has these guys (among many others) to thank for that.
10. LB Michael Mauti, 2010-12
Mauti, along with fullback Michael Zordich, set the tone for the 2012 team that began the program’s recovery from what seemed like nearly a death sentence in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Their speeches on July 25, 2012 about staying with the program, backed up by their leadership throughout the ensuing season, have been immortalized in “Saving the Roar” and other documentaries.
On the field, Mauti made 96 tackles and a team-high 3 interceptions, helping the Lions go 8-4 in their first season under Bill O’Brien.
With the program being ostracized and ridiculed nationally — and playing without the recently deceased Joe Paterno on staff for the first time in 63 years — Mauti, Zordich, QB Matt McGloin and a few other key upperclassmen kept the squad together.
9. QB Christian Hackenberg, 2013-15
Penn State’s highest-rated QB recruit not only stuck to his commitment despite the crippling sanctions handed down by the NCAA, he made 38 consecutive starts for a program that had sparse other options.
With the sanctions reducing the quality and quantity of players on the roster as the seasons went on, Hackenberg stagnated rather than blossoming as a pro prospect. But the team would have struggled much more — and likely had losing seasons — without him.
Also, the fact that he didn’t bail on the program probably signaled to the next batch of top recruits that Penn State could stay relevant and competitive in the near future. So he set the stage for the return to prominence that occurred the season after he exited for a short-lived NFL career.
8. S Marcus Allen, 2014-17
Grant Haley made the TD return that beat Ohio State in 2016, but it was Allen’s blocked field goal attempt that set up the late-game scoop-and-score. The blocked kick that resulted in a 24-21 upset of the Buckeyes tops Allen’s highlight reel, but he was far from a 1-hit wonder. In fact, Allen made a team-high 110 tackles in that magical 2016 season, helping the Lions to their lone Big Ten title since 2008.
For his career, Allen made 320 tackles, 4th on Penn State’s all-time list. He was more “glue guy” than marquee defender, with only 3 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and 1 interception in 49 career games. But at the time, Penn State really needed the glue.
7. WR Jahan Dotson, 2018-21
After squeezing the maximum yield out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Dotson returned in 2021 to post one of the best receiving seasons in Penn State history. Dynamic and consistent within an offense where those qualities were in short supply, Dotson turned himself into a first-round NFL Draft pick with a work ethic second to none.
His 1,182 receiving yards and 12 TD catches last year both rank 2nd in Penn State history, and his 242-yard game vs. Maryland improved the program single-game record by 26 yards.
6. WR Chris Godwin, 2014-16
Godwin posted a 1,101-yard receiving season in 2015 and then posted team-highs of 982 yards and 11 receiving TDs in 2016 to help James Franklin and 1st-year QB Trace McSorley propel Penn State back into the limelight of big-time college football.
Along with fellow receiver DaeSean Hamilton, Godwin helped the program find new heights while bridging the gap from Hackenberg to McSorley and emerging from the since-reduced sanctions.
A third-round pick by Tampa Bay, he’s been a mainstay for the Bucs ever since. He’s among a bevy of NFL pass-catchers who have PSU looking like Wide Receiver U these days.
5. TE Pete Gesicki, 2014-17
He increased his receptions total each season of his 4-year career and became a huge weapon during Joe Moorhead’s 2 seasons as offensive coordinator. From 2016-17, he averaged 52.5 catches, 621 yards and 7 TDs per season as a key option in Moorhead’s wide-open attack.
He reset the standard for Penn State tight ends, setting up Pat Freiermuth to follow in his footsteps beginning the next season.
4. WR Allen Robinson, 2011-13
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, Robinson stepped up as Matt McGloin’s primary target in 2012 and then Hackenberg’s in 2013. In way less than ideal circumstances, he posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, including the best PSU receiving year in history — 1,432 yards — to close out his college career.
A second-round NFL pick in 2014, Robinson is still going strong as a pro, having just signed a 3-year contract with the Rams.
3. LB Micah Parsons, 2018-19
Oh, what might have been. Parsons, a 5-star recruit out of Harrisburg, played only 2 seasons with the Lions. He opted out of the 2020 Covid season to protect his NFL future. Penn State hasn’t been the same since, having gone 11-11 over the past 2 seasons.
He could have done so much more at Penn State. But what he did do was lead the team in tackles both years, including 109 with 5 sacks in 2019 as the Lions went 11-2 and finished 9th in the AP poll.
More importantly, he restored the Linebacker U moniker for the program, going 12th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and then winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with the Cowboys. Before Parsons, Penn State had a dry spell at the LB position that lasted 5-plus years and hadn’t had a first-rounder since LaVar Arrington in 2000.
2. RB Saquon Barkley, 2015-17
Teaming with McSorley and Moorhead over his final 2 seasons with the Lions, Barkley brought production and flair to his position in leaps and bounds — not to mention jump-cuts.
Perhaps the best all-around back in program history, Barkley dominated as a runner, pass-catcher and return man, bringing strength, toughness and style to the field every time out.
1. QB Trace McSorley, 2015-2018
He was a master of figuring out how to beat people and have fun doing it. He exuded confidence and — for my money — just the right amount of bravado. The TD celebrations — baseball swings, salutes and the like — whipped teammates and fans into a frenzy of belief.
His mid-play creativity, whether opting to run or buying time so a receiver could improvise, was off the charts to a level few have ever matched — Doug Flutie and Johnny Manziel would lead the short list.
Statistically, he posted the 2 best passing seasons in program history and won a PSU record 31 games as a starting QB. It’s a shame the offense fell off so dramatically in 2018 after Moorhead moved on, but McSorley’s spot in Nittany lore is secure. Fans can only hope that some day soon Penn State football will be that much fun again.