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Penn State all-time team strong at RB, LB and offensive line

September 30, 2018

Sometimes, reputations aren’t cliche but are well-earned, as an examination of the all-time Penn State team in the NFL proves.

Joe Paterno’s 60-plus year run at the university conjures up images of old-time football: fullbacks, toughness, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Accordingly, the lists of Nittany Lion alumni who excelled in the pros at positions such as linebacker, running back and on the offensive line are long.

At quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back? Not so much. According to pro-football-reference.com, only three PSU-alum quarterbacks have ever started the majority of one NFL team’s games for even so much as at least one season. Also per pro-football-reference.com, not one Penn State alumni has ever earned Pro Bowl recognition as a defensive back, and it wasn’t until two years ago that Penn State got its first Pro Bowl receiver.

But the Pro Football Hall of Fame boasts former Nittany Lions at running back, linebacker and on the offensive and defensive lines. Five Penn State linebackers have combined for 13 first-team All-Pro honors, 12 PSU alums played at least nine seasons as NFL offensive linemen and 18 times a former Penn State running back was selected to a Pro Bowl.

In short, it’s obvious where the strengths and weaknesses of this team lie.

Quarterback

Kerry Collins

Some might say Kerry Collins was an NFL journeyman (he played for six teams over his 17-year career). But Collins was a two-time Pro Bowler who twice was the full-time starter for a team that earned the No. 1 seed in its conference. In January 2001, he guided the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV. Collins is the cream of a less-than-stellar crop of PSU quarterbacks in the NFL. Perhaps Jeff Hostetler would be second-best, but Hostetler transferred to West Virginia and is therefore ineligible for this exercise.

Running backs

Franco Harris, Curt Warner

Four college football Hall of Famers including a Heisman Trophy winner, in addition to five players taken among the top five in an NFL Draft dot Penn State’s legacy at running back. One who is familiar to those in Pittsburgh is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Franco Harris. Another, perhaps, could have been. “Curt Warner,” legendary NFL personnel man Gil Brandt said, “would have been in the Hall of Fame had his career not been shortened by injury.” Warner was AFC Offensive Player of the Year twice over his first four seasons and was a three-time All-Pro between 1983-87. Harris, of course, helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls and left the team as the NFL’s No. 2 all-time rusher (he now sits 15th).

Wide receivers

Lenny Moore and Bobby Engram

While Lenny Moore is remembered as a tailback at Penn State in the 1950s, his official Pro Football Hall of Fame bio lists him as a “flanker-running back” -- notice which is first. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler who helped the Baltimore Colts win two NFL championships and still ranks fifth in club history in receiving yards (6,039) despite playing in a run-heavy era and with his running back background. Bobby Engram edges O.J. McDuffie for the No. 2 receiver spot, largely based on longevity (14 seasons, 176 games, 650 catches).

Tight end

Ted Kwalick

McKees Rocks-born Ted Kwalick beats out Mickey Shuler and Kyle Brady after a nine-year NFL career in which he made three Pro Bowls while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. He was also part of the Super Bowl XI-winning Oakland Raiders in 1977. His 52 catches in 1971 might not seem overly impressive now, but that was good for third most in the NFL that season.

Offensive line

Mike Munchak, Steve Wisniewski, Jeff Hartings, Glenn Ressler, Kareem McKenzie

There’s an abundance of elite Nittany Lion alums on the interior offensive line but not as many on the outside. As a result, players such as Tom Rafferty (13-year starter of 182 games) and Marco Rivera (a two-time All-Pro over 11 NFL seasons) were “cut” in favor of selecting the best out of a group of tackles in which the pickings were slimmer. But it’s hard to go wrong with a Hall of Famer (Mike Munchak) and an eight-time Pro Bowler (Steve Wisniewski) at guard, nor with a two-time All-Pro at center (Jeff Hartings). At tackle, the starters came down to picking two of three among Stew Barber, Glenn Ressler and Kareem McKenzie. McKenzie played the most games (161) and seasons (11) and won the most NFL championships (two Super Bowls with the Giants); Ressler was a second-team NFL All-Pro and Super Bowl champion in 1968, the fourth of his 10 NFL seasons.

Defensive line

Mike Michalske, Rosey Grier, Mike Reid

In the spirit of getting the proverbial “Best 11 on the field,” the PSU NFL team’s coaching staff made the unilateral decision to play a 3-4 (hey, it’s Linebacker U -- the more linebackers, the better, right?). It also took the liberty of using three tackles on its defensive line, figuring that multiple-year All-Pros Mike Michalske, Rosey Grier and Mike Reid all deserved to be on the team. Maybe five-time Pro Bowl end Tamba Hali enters in passing-down subpackages? A case could be made that Hali should make the team over Michalske because the latter went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a “guard.” But Michalske played both ways (every down), this Penn State team is loaded on the interior offensive line and Michalske was a member of the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1920s. He teams with Grier (12 seasons, three All-Pro berths) and Reid (a two-time All-Pro) to make for a formidable unit to run against. Reid, incidentally, ended his career after five NFL seasons and transitioned into a career as a hit country music artist.

Linebackers

Jack Ham, Dave Robinson, Shane Conlan, Matt Millen

As Pro Football Hall of Famers, Jack Ham and Dave Robinson are the slam dunks here. Ham is well-known in Pittsburgh as a four-time Super Bowl champion and six-time first-team All-Pro. A decade earlier, Robinson had his own 12-year NFL career that included a pair of Super Bowl rings (three NFL championships in all) and three first- or second-team All Pro honors. After those two, it becomes a pick-two-of-three between Shane Conlan, Matt Millen and NaVorro Bowman. Although Bowman has the edge in All-Pro recognition (four times on the first team), Conlan (three times) and Millen (two) also were multiple-time All-Pros, but they combined to play in seven Super Bowls, too, winning four (all by Millen, who earned rings with three teams).

Defensive backs

Chuck Crist, Paul Lankford, Mike Zordich, Darren Perry

One of the best NFL safeties that went to Penn State did not even play football for the Nittany Lions. Chuck Crist accepted an athletic scholarship to the school after starring in four sports in high school, including in football as a quarterback and defensive back. Crist wanted to play QB at Penn State, so when the Joe Paterno-led staff insisted he play defense, Crist quit football and instead became a three-year starter (and team MVP) for the PSU basketball team. After graduation, he went back to football. Crist played seven NFL seasons, including being named the Saints’ defensive MVP in 1977. Paul Lankford (10 seasons with the Dolphins) serves as the other cornerback, with Mike Zordich and former Steeler Darren Perry manning the safety spots. Each of the safeties had a long NFL career, combining for 55 interceptions.

Specialists

Matt Bahr, Bob Parsons

The Bahr brothers combined to do the placekicking for four Super Bowl winners over a 12-year span bridging the 1980s. Matt edges older brother Chris in career points (1,422-1,213), field goals (300-241), field-goal percentage (72.3-63.3) and NFL seasons (17-14); the Brothers Bahr beat out current 49er Robbie Gould despite Gould’s better statistical accuracy (kickers at large are much, much more accurate now). Bob Parsons booted 884 punts for the Bears between 1973-83, leading the league in punts three times.

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