Penn State’s Seniors Leave Behind A Remarkable Legacy
When Penn State fans think about the people that held the football program intact during its darkest times, many think of the guys who chose not to transfer, like Michael Mauti and Matt McGloin, or the hotshot recruit that didn’t waver in his commitment – Christian Hackenberg.
But as important as those players were to the healing process in Happy Valley, it’s easy to forget to show the proper amount of credit that is due to other members from that small, 16-member recruiting class that followed Hackenberg after the NCAA’s harsh sanctions were handed down.
Many of those members, as well as a large contingent of players from the 2014 class, helped the program avoid the daunting predictions that most people made about this program.
“It’ll be years until they’re back in contention.”
“They’ll never be what they once were.”
In the end, these Penn State seniors proved those doubters wrong.
Mike Gesicki has had possibly the most interesting career path of all. Constantly reamed for dropping passes during his first year as a starter in 2015, Gesicki has turned into one of the nation’s premier tight ends.
With incredible Randy Moss-esque grabs, such as Penn State’s opening touchdown in last year’s Big Ten championship, Gesicki not only fixed his drop issue, but became the team’s most reliable receiving option. The senior has accumulated 1,180 yards on 99 catches over the past two seasons, tallying 14 touchdowns along the way.
The offensive line has been one of the most criticized units over the past few seasons due in large part to scholarship limits that hindered the Nittany Lions’ depth up front.
Seniors Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson have been two of the bright spots along that time, with Mahon earning 40 career starts and Nelson earning 28, despite battling major injuries over the past two seasons. They served as the leaders and anchors for a young, inexperienced group that has consistently been shorthanded, a fact that can’t truly be measured by any statistic.
Saeed Blacknall didn’t quite reach the potential that fans may have hoped for. But at the end of the day, Blacknall terrorizing the Wisconsin secondary in Indianapolis has made him immortal in Penn State football folklore, while DaeSean Hamilton is one of the most popular players on the team and has 16 career touchdowns.
The middle of the defensive line has benefited from having two solid pillars for opposing teams to have to get through – Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran. With different spellings and no relation, the two linemen have shared a name as well as 20 starts together over the past two seasons, while Parker added five additional starts at the beginning of the 2016 season. They’ve combined for 130 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 24 tackles for loss during their time donning the blue and white.
“Linebacker U” saw another phenomenal middle ‘backer develop in front of our eyes the last few years. Jason Cabinda‘s hustle, heart, and toughness were on display since he made his debut as a true freshman. He was a team captain this year, and currently sits ninth all-time in career tackles with 278 as a Nittany Lion.
No one will ever be able to forget his return from a hand injury that sidelined him for five games, only to churn out a 13-tackle performance in the White Out upset over Ohio State in 2016. His game-ending sack of J.T. Barrett may have produced even more pandemonium than Marcus Allen’s blocked kick did.
Speaking of that Allen guy, he owns a pretty solid spot in this program’s history as well. From the zillions of times that the block highlight has been played and will continue to be played, to his celebratory dance videos following a Nittany Lion victory, to his overall positive attitude that he seemed to bring everywhere, the loss of Allen might hurt fans more than any other senior.
His 310 tackles rank sixth in program history and 25th among active FBS players entering bowl season. His 22-tackle performance against Minnesota in 2016 may have saved the Nittany Lions’ season with Penn State missing almost every linebacker on the roster due to injury. Allen will go down as one of the best safeties to ever suit up in State College.
That blocked kick had to fall in someone’s hands to complete the story, and Grant Haley is the quintessential “right place, right time” player. His legendary stumble across the goal line with Chris Fowler’s booming voice playing in the background has immortalized him. If that didn’t, then he and Allen stuffing Corey Clement on 4th and 1 to seal a conference championship surely will.
With John Reid sitting out the season due to a knee injury, Haley was called upon to be the team’s leader at cornerback this season, and he ended up as a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist (Allen was as well). Haley is the only player in school history to ever return a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
Tyler Davis is the eighth best scorer in school history with 244 points, despite the fact that his senior year hasn’t gone as planned. After hitting 30-of-32 attempts in his first 21 games as the Penn State placekicker, the 2016 Vlade Award winner (most accurate college kicker) only made nine of his 16 kicks this year.
However, Davis has made all 139 of his point-after attempts in his career, and booted 31 of his 81 kickoffs through the end zone this year when Joey Julius didn’t return to the team.
Other players, such as Troy Apke, Brandon Smith, and Christian Campbell played their own roles at times in helping the program. They could’ve decommitted, transferred, or succumbed to the hate and doubt that was shed upon them. With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the program at the time this group arrived, they leave behind a rock-solid foundation for an exciting future.
Tomorrow, these guys will take the field in their second New Year’s Six bowl game in as many years. That says everything you need to know about what this group has meant, and will continue to mean for Penn State and its football program.