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Nittanys Lionized: Penn State’s Top 6 Athletes

At Penn State University, world-class athletes are everywhere. A storied football program, recently dominant wrestling program, and track and field and basketball programs on the upswing all attract some of the best athletes in the country annually.

You won’t find a name on the back of a jersey in Happy Valley, so individual accomplishment is often overlooked. The concept of team reigns supreme. But individual accomplishments shouldn’t go unrecognized. Some of the things these Nittany Lions are doing are simply stunning.

Who is the best, though? Who is the best sheer athlete at Penn State based on speed, agility, strength and success at his respective sport? Is it realistic to put one above the rest, or is it like choosing from a lot full of Mercedes and BMWs? First, we must define athlete.

Dr. Robert Kretchmar is a professor of exercise and sports science in Penn State’s kinesiology department. How would he go about defining and crowning the best athlete at Penn State? “The best athlete at Penn State is that individual who is furthest above the norm in his sport,” he said.

In the Big Ten conference, the norm is often excellence. So the best athlete at Penn State must be excellent at, well, excellence. He must have success at success. And there’s a pretty good chance he’s an absolute physical specimen as well.

Head basketball coach Patrick Chambers has seen his share of world-class athletes over the years, having recruited and coached NBA talent at Villanova prior to becoming the head man at Penn State. He pairs the term “athlete” with the usuals: speed, strength and agility, but thinks IQ for the sport and freakiness must be heavily factored in. “You hear the term ‘freak’ a lot,” said Chambers. “The best athlete at Penn State has to be an absolute freak.”

It’s time to crown the best of the best: freaks in the most positive sense of the word. Here are the lionized ones, the top athletes at Penn State based strictly on speed, agility, strength, IQ and success at sport.

6. Silas Redd — The bowling ball on wheels

As soon as 18-year-old Silas Redd got to campus, Chima Okoli knew the guy was something special. Redd’s strong freshman campaign validated Okoli’s prediction that Redd would be the “real deal.”

GoPSUSports tells us Redd ran for 437 yards on just 77 carries during his freshman year playing backup to the leading rusher in Penn State history, Evan Royster. The numbers, though, don’t do Redd’s freshman campaign justice. Redd played a vital role in the Lions’ 2010 victory over Northwestern, which happened to be Joe Paterno’s 400th win. Fast-forward two years and he’s in an elite class of the Big Ten’s best backs.

“Silas had everyone’s respect from day 1,” said Chima Okoli, who was one of five Nittany Lions who had the pleasure of creating holes for the bowling ball on wheels. “I’d make a small crease for him and he’d just slide right through there for 17 yards.”

And how about that trademark spin move? You know, the one that he utilizes so often he should probably be nicknamed Tornado. “That spin is nuts. I just say wow. It gets him five to seven more yards every time.”

Last summer, a video hit the Penn State blogosphere. It featured Redd showing off his summer workouts, which consisted of sit-ups on park benches, pull-ups on swing sets and core exercises on picnic tables and beach sand. Check it out, and you’ll think you’re watching a warm weather version of Rocky Balboa’s outdoor training in the Russian tundra in Rocky IV.

Redd is the superstar of the offense at a university where football reigns supreme. His physical traits and success on the field aren’t too shabby either, making him number 6 on my list.

#5 Tim Frazier — The pogo stick that dribbles

The phrase is overused, but Tim Frazier may actually be able to jump out of a building. He’s the create-a-player who you awarded a 99 “jumping” rating in basketball video games. He navigates the court with 6 sets of eyes like a speed skater with springs for ankles.

The 6’1” guard from Houston just completed his junior year as the Nittany Lions’ floor general and it was his best campaign yet. Frazier was a first-team Big Ten selection. He finished 2nd in scoring, 1st in assists and 2nd in steals in what is widely regarded as the best conference in college basketball.

Frazier’s assist mark is perhaps the most impressive element of his stat line. He led a team in assists that would have considered “offensively challenged” a compliment. That speaks to his basketball IQ, something his coach urged me to factor in to my rankings.

Basketball information director, Brian Siegrist, has witnessed Frazier’s athleticism courtside for 3 years. He puts Frazier’s speed the elitist of classes, comparing him to (now formerly) the fastest player on the football team, Devon Smith.

One moment in particular jumps out to Siegrist: Penn State’s 2011 Big Ten tournament semifinal victory over Michigan State. “In that game, Tim literally outran the opponent,” he said. “He just kept blitzing the ball down the court for layups, which is what Michigan State was usually doing to opponents.” Frazier burst onto the national scene after that performance and hasn’t looked back.

Tim’s head coach pointed out what makes Frazier so elite. “He has a superior internal drive,” said coach Patrick Chambers, who considers Frazier an athletic freak.

Chambers is Frazier’s biggest advocate. During practices, Chambers and his staff keep track of every stat, including hustle points. “Tim won at least 90 percent of our stat competitions,” said Chambers. “Not only is he a freak athlete, but he uses his talents in so many ways.”

Sean Fantuzzi is a men’s basketball athletic trainer at Penn State. He’s had the privilege of watching Frazier in his most intense strength conditioning workouts. He declared Frazier “the genetic freak.” Tim Frazier has it all and does it all, earning the “genetic freak” the number 5 spot on my list.

#4 Robby Creese — The machine in motion

According to Track and Field News, as of February 2012 just 366 Americans had achieved perhaps the greatest physical feat known to man: the sub 4-minute mile. Cracking the list requires an athlete who completes unimaginable training, utilizes natural ability and has valuable collegiate racing experience. Someone forgot to tell Robby Creese about the whole “experience” thing.

Creese just finished his freshman year at Penn State. He has defied the inferiority often associated with the average freshman – he’s superior at superiority.

In his first collegiate race Creese broke Alan Webb’s NCAA record in the 1000M at the Nittany Lion Challenge, clocking in at 2:19. Teammate Nick Scarpello recalls this as the moment Creese exploded onto the NCAA track scene.

“We knew when he toed the line that day he was in store for a great race,” said Scarpello. “But no one quite expected this. A lot of jaws dropped that day.” Creese has since made a habit of dropping jaws.

Creese fits the bill of your standard distance runner. His results, though, are anything but standard. His movements seem effortless. His results? Machine-like.

Distance running is by no means a glory sport. The training is brutal and unlike Hodges and Redd Creese doesn’t have 100,000+ to keep him moving. So what keeps his motor running? Nittany Lion assistant track coach John Gondak works with Creese daily. His answer: “Creese lives for the competition.”

Gondak described the mindset necessary to become an elite distance runner. “You have to be able to tell yourself you are going to run 10 miles in 15 degree temperatures or pouring rain,” he said. Creese and his teammates have a 10-mile loop they often run. On his “light” day, Creese maintains a conversational pace for 10 miles: 5:30 per mile. No big deal, right?

To put it simply, the things Robby Creese does on a daily basis require a physical prowess possessed by no one else on this campus. A 3:58 mile is world class for the most elite runners, let alone for someone that attended his senior prom just months ago.

“The training is supremely unique to him,” said Gondak. “I’ve never seen guys train like this.”

Expect more record-shattering and jaw-dropping moments from Creese during the next 3 years. Creese may struggle to define “the norm,” because he’s only known what exists beyond it. The freshman sub 4-minute miler clocks in at number 4 on my list.

#3 Ed Ruth — The stud with a green streak

During the 2012 174 lb. NCAA championship match, Penn State wrestler Ed Ruth rocked a green streak in his hair. As if he wasn’t already intimidating enough…

To put it simply, Ruth is an indomitable ox on the mat. Correction: indomitable doesn’t do his feats justice. Ruth’s 2011 campaign ended in what he’d consider a disappointment, finishing 3rd at the NCAA championships. The remedy? Go undefeated the following season en route to individual and team championships, which is just what Ruth did.

Ruth didn’t lose a match this past season. Talk about going beyond the norm.

Pat Donghia has had the privilege of watching Ruth up-close all season as the sports information director for the wrestling team. What amazes Donghia most is Ruth’s famous move. “Everyone knows the cradle is coming,” said Donghia of Ruth’s go-to move. “The opponent is just simply helpless to stop it.” All of Ruth’s 2011-12 opponents shared this feeling, probably comparable to the helplessness they felt as infants.

Ruth looks like he was sculpted by the wrestling gods. And what about that green streak he sported in the tournament? We’ll call it creative genius. Ruth cradled his way to a dominant national championship victory over Stanford’s Nick Amuchastegui. This week, Ruth headed to Iowa along with teammate David Taylor, vying for a spot on the US Olympic team. Now that’s world class.

All season, opponents took the mat with Ruth to simply prolong the inevitable: defeat. Assistant coach Cody Sanderson attributes this to Ruth’s absolute physical dominance. What about speed, though, which isn’t necessarily linked with wrestling? “Ruth is considered the fastest in the country,” said Sanderson. “He’s on the takedown before the opponent can even think about reacting.”

Ruth possesses everything that goes into being a supreme athlete. As for going beyond the norm, Ruth is among the best of the bunch, making him number 3 on my list.

#2 Gerald Hodges — The ball-seeking missile

“An absolute monster athletically.” That’s how Ben Jones, a football reporter for StateCollege.com describes Gerald Hodges, Penn State’s ball-seeking missile.

A simple observation of Hodges in game might have one thinking he’s magnetically attracted to the ball carrier. That’s because he is. Hodges has Ed Reed’s instincts and Brian Urlacher’s toughness, which has led most to crown him the second coming of Navarro Bowman, the Penn Stater Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.

At a University nicknamed for the position on a team where 7 linebackers could probably start at 50 other D-1 schools, it’s not exactly easy to stand out. But Hodges has done just that, and more.

Hodges has teammate Chima Okoli’s vote for best athlete at Penn State. “Gerald’s the most athletic person I’ve ever seen,” said Okoli. “He has it all – speed, instincts, strength and a high motor.” That high motor allowed Hodges to make a living in opposing backfields during his 2011 campaign.

In the weight room, Hodges is one of, if not the strongest guys on the team pound for pound. The 6’2”, 233 lb. stud possesses a ridiculous stature. You’d think he borrowed Dwight Howard’s shoulders and Ivan Drago’s chest.

That build and strength helped Hodges become an all-state wrestler at Pauslboro High School in South Jersey, where he lost only one match during his junior season. Hodges has since mastered the football takedown, registering 97 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2011. A successful NFL career is in his future.

Okoli described Hodges in his ultimate beast mode. Prior to a lift, Okoli was stretching at the Lasch Building. He witnessed Hodges, who he calls “G,” wolf down three ham and cheese sandwiches, a protein shake and a Gatorade. Ten minutes later, Hodges was pumping ridiculous amounts of iron effortlessly. “He’s crazy,” said Okoli.

Linebacker U’s best linebacker is poised for a record-breaking senior campaign. He’s an athlete in the truest sense of the word: a football star who could have wrestled at most D-1 programs. Keep an eye out in 2012 and in the NFL for “G,” number 2 on my list.

#1 David Taylor — The Takedown Czar

Let me remind you: the best athlete at Penn State must be excellent at excellence. He must have success at success. David Taylor doesn’t just fit this description, he goes beyond it. Taylor is dominant at dominance.

David Taylor is the best college wrestler in the nation. Period. The 2012 Hodge winner, awarded to the nation’s best wrestler, has just one loss in his 2-year career at Penn State. He’s just the third sophomore to win the much-heralded award.

Unfortunately, wrestling often gets brushed under the rug. If you’ve never witnessed the Takedown Czar, simply YouTube Taylor’s 2012 165 lb. NCAA championship match. With all due respect to Brandon Hatchett of Lehigh, Taylor made Hatchett his little brother, tossing him around like any good big brother should.

If you analyzed the match in 8th grade English, the only recurring motif would be “takedown.” Just five seconds into the match, Taylor registered his first takedown. For you wrestling illiterates, it’s like Taylor ran back the opening kickoff untouched. Takedown after takedown ensued. On the road to the championship, every opponent thrown to the pack of wolves that is David Taylor was pinned. This feat had not been achieved in 32 years. Taylor scoffs at the norm.

He racked up 22 points in his championship victory. It wasn’t a fair fight. Assistant coach Cody Sanderson gave some insight into Taylor’s offensive strategy. “David has an unmatched ability to put his body in the perfect place to score,” he said.

Wrestling information director Pat Donghia attributes Taylor’s success to his short-term quick muscle speed. That speed, paired with Taylor’s strength and his incurable addiction to winning qualified him for the 2012 Olympic trials.

If I were a betting man, my life savings would be on Taylor bringing home two more Hodge trophies along with two more national championships. It’s easy money thanks to a kid that makes it look easy.

Someday Taylor, like his head coach, will be an Olympian. That puts him, along with Ruth and Creese, in a class the remaining athletes on this list can only dream of attaining. Chalk up yet another victory for David Taylor, who comes in at number 1 on my list. Dominance reigns supreme, again.

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