25 best players penn state football history

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Regardless of the position (yes, more than just linebackers), Penn State has produced some of the greatest football players in college football history. Here is our list of the 25 best players in school history, listed in chronological order.

 

1 of 25

Harry Wilson, Running Back (1921-’23)

Harry Wilson, Running Back (1921-'23)

Penn State University Libraries

We’re digging deep into the annals of Penn State football. Back in the early 1920s, Wilson was among the true stars of the game. Wilson was nicknamed “Lighthorse Harry,” because of his speed and quick spurts. During a 1923 game versus Navy, the College Football Hall of Famer recorded touchdown runs of 95, 80 and 55 yards. When his three-year playing career at Penn State ended, Wilson actually starred for Army from 1924-’27.

 

2 of 25

Lenny Moore, Running Back (1953-’55)

Lenny Moore, Running Back (1953-'55)

York Daily Record

Moore played just 27 games during his three-year varsity career at Penn State but scored 24 touchdowns. He also totaled 2,380 rushing yards, which, entering the 2022 season, ranked 14th all-time in school history. He posted 12 games of at least 100 rushing yards and recorded 3,543 all-purpose yards, 1,486 of which came during the 1954 season — a school record at the time. Moore’s 7.96 average yards per carry from ’54 still sits as No. 2 in Nittany Lions’ history. Considering the number of great, almost legendary, running backs Penn State has produced, Moore’s legacy has more than stood the test of time.

 

3 of 25

Richie Lucas, Quarterback (1957-’59)

Richie Lucas, Quarterback (1957-'59)

National Football Foundation

Known as “Riverboat Richie,” for his tendency to gamble and take chances on the field. During the 1959 season, Lucas ran for 325 yards, passed for 913 and five touchdowns. Lucas also averaged 34.0 yards per punt and picked off five passes, while playing defense for the Nittany Lions. That same season, Lucas won the Maxwell Award, given to the country’s top player, and was runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

 

4 of 25

Dave Robinson, Offensive/Defensive End (1960-’62)

Dave Robinson, Offensive/Defensive End (1960-'62)

SB Nation/Black Shoe Diaries

A member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames, Robinson was a two-way standout for the Nittany Lions during the early 1960s. Robinson’s most memorable season came in 1962 when he was named an All-American and the college player of the year by the Newark Athletic Club. That season, Robinson caught 17 passes for 178 yards and was a dominant force on the Penn State defensive front. During his career in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions went 24-8 and won two bowl games.

 

5 of 25

Glenn Ressler, Offensive/Defensvie Lineman (1962-’64)

Glenn Ressler, Offensive/Defensvie Lineman (1962-'64)

Penn State University/pennlive.com

A College Football Hall of Famer, Ressler is one of the most versatile linemen in Penn State history. Though he’s likely best known among the game’s best centers, Ressler also played on the Nittany Lions defensive line during his time in Happy Valley. During Penn State’s 26-0 upset win over No. 1 Ohio State in 1963, Ressler was credited with 15 solo tackles. The next season, Ressler won the Maxwell Award.

 

6 of 25

Ted Kwalick, Tight End (1966-’68)

Ted Kwalick, Tight End (1966-'68)

Penn State University

Kwalick is Penn State’s first two-time All-American, and his 1,343 receiving yards — second-most among Nittany Lions tight ends — and 10 receiving touchdowns still rank among the program’s all-time leaders. For his career, Kwalick caught 86 passes, which also remains among the best pass-catchers in school history. Kwalick, a three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XI champion with the Oakland Raiders, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005. 

 

7 of 25

Dennis Onkotz, Linebacker/Punt Returner (1967-’69)

Dennis Onkotz, Linebacker/Punt Returner (1967-'69)

The Morning Call

There are a host of schools that claim to be “Linebacker U,” but Penn State might have the most evidence to make the case stand. Onkotz is usually considered the Nittany Lions’ first star linebacker, and his 287 career tackles rank eighth all-time in school history. The 118 he recorded in 1967 are the 10th-most in a season at Penn State; the two-time All-American and College Football Hall of Famer also posted 11 interceptions — the most of any Penn State linebacker and tied for 10th overall in school history. Onkotz also averaged 13.2 yards per 47 career punt returns — ninth-best in the program.

 

8 of 25

Mike Reid, Defensive Lineman (1967-’69)

Mike Reid, Defensive Lineman (1967-'69)

SB Nation/Black Shoe Diaries

Before Reid was a Grammy Award-winning country music artist and composer, he won both the Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s top interior lineman and Maxwell Award, as the country’s best overall player, in 1969 for Penn State. That season, Reid, selected team captain for a second consecutive campaign, posted 89 tackles for the undefeated Nittany Lions. The All-American, who also wrestled during his time at Penn State, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

 

9 of 25

Jack Ham, Linebacker (1968-’70)

Jack Ham, Linebacker (1968-'70)

Penn State University

A member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames, Ham’s overall legacy was made while winning four Super Bowls and earning six first-team All-Pro nods with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, the foundation for that success was laid at Penn State, where Ham was an All-American and recorded more than 200 tackles — and over 140 of the solo variety. During his time as a collegian, Penn State went 29-3, with a pair of undefeated seasons (1968 and ’69).

 

10 of 25

Lydell Mitchell, Running Back (1969-’71)

Lydell Mitchell, Running Back (1969-'71)

Penn State University

Mitchell helped usher in a resurgence of prominent Penn State running backs, beginning in the early 1970s. He finished fifth in the 1971 Heisman Trophy voting for posting a school-record 1,567 yards and 29 touchdowns (an NCAA record at the time). The All-American’s 2,934 rushing yards rank ninth all-time at Penn State, while the 38 touchdowns Mitchell scored on the ground also sit among the school’s career leaders. Mitchell was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

 

11 of 25

John Cappelletti, Running Back (1971-’73)

John Cappelletti, Running Back (1971-'73)

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Speaking of the Heisman Trophy, Cappelletti is still the only Nittany Lion to win the coveted college football award. And who can forget his touching acceptance speech dedicated to his dying younger brother, Joey? That came during the 1973 season, when Cappelletti, who began his Penn State varsity career as a defensive back, rushed for 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns for the 12-0 squad. It’s the fourth-highest rushing total in school history. It should be noted that Cappelletti ran for 1,117 and 12 touchdowns in 1972. Cappelletti’s 2,639 yards are 12th on Penn State’s career rushing list, while his 29 touchdowns are tied for seventh. In addition to the Heisman, the College Football Hall of Famer won the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards.

 

12 of 25

Matt Millen, Defensive Lineman (1976-’79)

Matt Millen, Defensive Lineman (1976-'79)

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

While Millen earned his money and won four Super Bowls in the NFL as a linebacker, he was an All-American-caliber defensive lineman for the Nittany Lions. Millen is sixth all-time in school history with 22 sacks and tied for 12th with 36 career tackles for loss. He also forced six fumbles during his stellar three-year career at Penn State, which ranks among the top 10 in program history. All impressive numbers for a rather undersized member of the Nittany Lions defensive front.

 

13 of 25

Curt Warner, Running Back (1979-’82)

Curt Warner, Running Back (1979-'82)

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Another Nittany Lions running back who is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Though time has passed, Warner’s name remains littered prominently in the Penn State football record book. His 3,398 rushing yards are third all-time in school history, while his 18 games of at least 100 yards on the ground remain the most from any Nittany Lion. Warner, who ran for at least 1,000 in both 1981 and ’82, earned first-team All-American honors as a junior, then a year later, helped Penn State win the national championship to conclude the 1982 campaign.

 

14 of 25

Shane Conlan, Linebacker (1983-’86)

Shane Conlan, Linebacker (1983-'86)

Sporting News via Getty Images

Penn State’s “Linebacker U” persona continued with Conlan, the epitome of the hard-nosed, find-the-ball-at-any-cost defender. The College Football Hall of Famer ranks among the school’s leaders with 274 career tackles, including 186 solos. During his All-American season in 1986, Conlan saved his performance for the Nittany Lions’ 14-10 victory over Miami, Fla., in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national championship. He recorded eight tackles and two interceptions, the second of which set up Penn State’s winning touchdown.

 

15 of 25

Steve Wisniewski, Offensive Lineman (1985-’88)

Steve Wisniewski, Offensive Lineman (1985-'88)

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

A key member of Penn State’s national championship group from 1986, Wisniewski was a two-time All-American (1986, ’87) guard. Standing 6-foot-4 and tipping the scales at a little more than 300 pounds, Wisniewski was a massive presence on the interior of the Nittany Lions offensive line. Though he did not take home much notable individual hardware as a collegian, Wisniewski went on to enjoy a stellar NFL career, earning eight Pro Bowl nods and two-first All-Pro selections with the Raiders, both in Los Angeles and Oakland.

 

16 of 25

Ki-Jana Carter, Running Back, (1992-’94)

Ki-Jana Carter, Running Back, (1992-'94)

Mike Powell/Staff/Getty Images

Another in the long line of stellar Penn State running backs, Carter entered the 2022 season ranked 10th on the school’s career rushing list with 2,829 yards. His big season came in 1994, when he ran for 1,539 yards (third-most at Penn State for a single season) and 23 touchdowns (ranks second in school history) while earning consensus All-American status and helping the Nittany Lions to a 12-0 record. Carter, who finished second in the Heisman voting in ’94, also ranks fourth all-time at Penn State with 34 rushing touchdowns.

 

17 of 25

Kerry Collins, Quarterback (1992-’94)

Kerry Collins, Quarterback (1992-'94)

Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

Collins enjoyed a special season in 1994, throwing for 2,679 passing yards (eighth-most in school history) and 21 touchdowns (tied for seventh). His 66.7 completion percentage remains the best at Penn State for a single season and another reason Collins was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and won the Maxwell Award, among other national recognition. Collins, who ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in passing yards (5,304), touchdown passes (39), and completion percentage (56.3), was a 2018 inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame.

 

18 of 25

Bobby Engram, Wide Receiver (1991, 1993-’95)

Bobby Engram, Wide Receiver (1991, 1993-'95)

Rick Stewart/Stringer/Getty Images

Engram has the honor of being the inaugural winner of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the country’s top collegian receiver. Engram won the award in 1994 when he led the undefeated Nittany Lions with 52 receptions for 1,029 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 19.8 yards per catch. The next year, Engram set career highs with 63 catches for 1,084 and scored 11 times. Engram, a three-time All-Big Ten pick and All-American, is Penn State’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,026) and receiving touchdowns (31). His 13 TDs from 1993 are also a single-season high from a Nittany Lions receiver. His 3,904 career all-purpose yards (including 862 returning and 155 rushing) rank eighth at Penn State.

 

19 of 25

Jeff Hartings, Offensive Lineman (1992-’95)

Jeff Hartings, Offensive Lineman (1992-'95)

Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

Another two-time All-American (1994, ’95). Hartings earned first-team honors in 1995 as one of the best offensive guards in the nation. During Hartings’ time in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions went 38-10 and won a Big Ten championship and three bowl games, highlighted by the 1995 Rose Bowl. Hartings then went on to enjoy a successful NFL career, where he was a first-team All-Pro (2004) and helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl XL.

 

20 of 25

Courtney Brown, Defensive End (1996-’99)

Courtney Brown, Defensive End (1996-'99)

Ed Nessen/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Brown’s NFL career never panned out as the overall No. 1 pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, but there’s no denying the legacy he left at Penn State. The two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer still remains the Nittany Lions’ all-time leader with 33 sacks and 70 tackles for loss. In 1999, Brown recorded 13 1/2 of those sacks (fourth-most at Penn State for a season) and a school-record 29 tackles for loss en route to winning both the Big Ten Defensive Lineman and Defensive Player of the Year. While also a consensus All-American.

 

21 of 25

LaVar Arrington, Linebacker (1997-’99)

LaVar Arrington, Linebacker (1997-'99)

Rick Stewart/Stringer/Getty Images

At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Arrington was quite the physical specimen at Penn State, then during his time in the NFL. Arrington was the first Nittany Lion to win the Butkus Award, honoring the nation’s top linebacker. That came in 1999, when he also won the Bednarik Award, given to the country’s best defensive player, for recording 20 tackles for loss. For his career, the two-time All-American totaled 39 tackles for loss — tied for eighth in school history. His 19 career sacks are tied for 11th.

 

22 of 25

Larry Johnson, Running Back (1999-2002)

Larry Johnson, Running Back (1999-2002)

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

Sure, Johnson’s legacy at Penn State might be based on the final of his four seasons in Happy Valley, but it was certainly one for the ages. Johnson recorded 2,087 of his 2,953 career rushing yards as a senior in 2002. That effort produced the most rushing yards by any Nittany Lion for a single season and paved the way for Johnson to win the Maxwell, Walter Camp, and Doak Walker Awards. He also ran for a school-record 327 yards against Indiana in 2002, plus 279 each versus Illinois and Michigan State, and 257 against Northwestern that year. Johnson ranks eighth on the school’s all-time rushing list.

 

23 of 25

Paul Posluszny, Linebacker (2003-’06)

Paul Posluszny, Linebacker (2003-'06)

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Talk about having a knack for finding the ball carrier. Not many did it better than Posluszny, whose 372 career tackles rank second in Penn State history. He posted 116 each during the 2005 and ’06 campaigns. Posluszny won the Bednarik Award and is the second Nittany Lion to be honored with the Butkus Award (2005). A two-time consensus All-American, Posluszny posted 22 tackles against Northwestern that same 2005 season.

 

24 of 25

Dan Connor, Linebacker (2004-’07)

Dan Connor, Linebacker (2004-'07)

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

It might come as a surprise to the casual college football fan to learn that Connor is the all-time leading tackler at Penn State. In fact, the two-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American is the only Nittany Lion to record at least 400 tackles — 419, to be exact. His 145 from 2007 rank second in school history for a single season. That was obviously a big reason Connor won the Bednarik Award, picking up where the aforementioned Paul Posluszny left off.

 

25 of 25

Saquon Barkley, Running Back (2015-’17)

Saquon Barkley, Running Back (2015-'17)

Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports

The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American (2017), Barkley ran for 3,843 career yards during his Penn State career. Second only to Evan Royster’s 3,932 in the annals of Nittany Lions history. Barkley’s 1,496 rushing yards from 2016 rank fifth for a season at Penn State, while his 1,271, recorded one year later, are 12th-best at the school. Barkley is also Penn State’s leader with 43 career rushing touchdowns, including 18 apiece in 2016 and ’17.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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