The Penn State Nittany Lions have done a decent job of staying afloat the past few seasons considering the circumstances. It’s been more of an issue with lack of quality depth versus lack of quality talent in my opinion, and that will continue to be an issue this fall. But make no mistake, there’s still pro talent in this program and it’ll continue to grow thanks to SEC-caliber recruiting courtesy of Vanderbilt-transplant James Franklin. So who are the top NFL draft prospects on the field this fall for PSU? We’ll start on offense (and again, only those eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft will be discussed, so no chatter of the top prospect on the roster, QB Christian Hackenberg).
At running back are two intriguing prospects with seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. The 6-foot 1, 233-pound Zwinak has been a model of consistency the past two seasons, rushing for 1,981 yards on 413 carries (good for 4.8 per carry). He was especially effective down the stretch of ’13, when he literally carried the Lions through the last four games (109 carries for 569 yards and 4 TDs). Though Zwinak has spent most of his college career at tailback, it’s likely he’ll be forced to move to a fullback or H-back role at the next level. He’s a tough, downhill runner who can be tough to bring down, but he just doesn’t have the speed or shiftiness you look for in a tailback at the professional level.
Belton doesn’t have the production of Zwinak but he does offer more versatility, and has the potential to see his stock rise the most in his senior season this fall, particularly if he plays slot receiver well. Belton is an elusive runner who has average power between the tackles but can make that one cut to the outside. He has good hands out of the backfield, which is one of the reasons he’s getting looks in the slot, and could be really effective in this role. Slot receiver is likely his best position at the next level.
Junior tight end Jesse James isn’t on here because of outrageous numbers (25 receptions for 333 yards and 3 TD’s in ’13), he’s on here because of his incredible upside. At 6-foot 7, 272-pounds, James is an absolute monster receiving threat. Running a reported 40 time in the high 4.6’s and putting up 27-reps on bench in the spring, James is going to be one to watch at the NFL Combine, whether it’s in ’15 or ’16. James is still raw at this point and he has a lot to learn of the finer intricacies of receiving, but his ceiling and upside are through the roof. He fits the trend of giant TE’s who can both run and catch that are all the rage in the NFL right now.
Up front, junior LT Donovan Smith is the one to talk about. The 6-foot 5, 335-pounder has steadily developed the past two seasons while starting 20 games on the blindside, and offers an impressive skill set for the next level. He has the feet, length and strength to man the edge in the NFL, but does have some work to do in consistently using good technique, both with his leverage and with hand placement. Considering his developmental arc and assuming he plays to his potential this fall, I expect him to continue rising up OT rankings.
Another guy to keep an eye on is senior LG Miles Dieffenbach, who tore his ACL in the spring. He’ll likely miss most of the season recovering, but there’s a chance he could come back for the last few games. He showed pro potential while starting 23 games the last two seasons, but could be best fit at the next level playing center. He’s a high character guy with top notch intangibles.