Penn State is on a roll at the NFL Combine.
With cornerback Amani Oruwariye’s appearance in the 2019 Combine’s final day on Monday, 15 Nittany Lions will have participated in the event over the past two years.
Will the Nittany Lions keep the (foot)ball going in 2020?
Right now, it’s not a sure bet.
Unless you include former Nittany Lions like Juwan Johnson and Manny Bowen. (More on that further down.)
Upwards to 20 current Penn State players will have at least the requisite three years in college under their belts when next year’s Combine takes over Indianapolis.
Clubhouse leaders among current — and former — Penn State players to earn an invite to the 2020 Combine are divided into three groups:
1. FINAL YEAR OF ELIGIBILITY:
TE Nick Bowers, LB Cam Brown, P Blake Gillikin, OL Steven Gonzalez, TE Jonathan Holland, LB Jan Johnson, CB John Reid, QB Tommy Stevens, S Garrett Taylor and DT Robert Windsor.
The aforementioned group are Nittany Lions who will be playing in their final season in 2019. Although a year off, contenders among this group to earn an invite to the 2020 Combine are led by Brown, who has the athletic skills, starting experience (14 and counting) and a frame that that is starting to fill out. He has the potential, folks inside Lasch are saying, to be a first- or second-round pick with a big season.
Then there’s Reid, provided he continues to continue his progress after knee surgery two years ago. Grant Haley’s rookie-season success with the NFL Giants in 2019 has to portend well for Reid. Also with potential heading into 2019 is Windsor, who had a combined nine sacks and tackles for a loss in the final three regular-season games in 2018 (he was suspended for the Citrus Bowl). Taylor, at safety, had a somewhat-surprisingly good 2018 campaign — his first as a starter — and is both a savvy and steady player.
Johnson, Stevens and Gonzalez are long-shots — although who knows, each could have a breakout season. Gonzalez may have the best shot. Gillikin punts well enough to earn a shot at the NFL, but in 2019 only three punters earned an invite to Indy for the Combine.
2. THIRD YEAR in 2019:
CB Tariq Castro-Fields, OL Will Fries, WR/KR K.J. Hamler, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, RB C.J. Holmes, OL Michael Menet, DT Antonio Shelton, DE Shaka Toney and S/CB Lamont Wade.
Even after the 2019 season, players in this group could all return to Happy Valley for a final year of college eligibility, With Gross-Matos, especially, that seems unlikely. Edge men in the NFL are prized, more than ever, and you have to think that Gross-Matos could be Penn State’s next Aaron Maybin, as far as the NFL Draft is concerned. After just one standout season at PSU, Maybin was a first-round NFL pick in 2009.
(Maybin and DE Jared Odrick in 2010 are Penn State’s last two defensive players to be selected in the first round. Before Saquon Barkley in 2018, offensive tackle Levi Brown in 2007 was Penn State’s most recent offensive player selected in the first round.)
Castro-Fields, at 6-feet and 189 pounds, possesses a good combination of length, speed and hitting ability that the NFL is looking for in its corners. Hamler has mad skills, especially as a returner, but will need more touches in 2019 to truly show that he has the durability and consistency to come out a year early.
3. FORMER NITTANY LIONS:
Manny Bowen, Utah; Juwan Johnson, Oregon; and Jarvis Miller, UMass.
I’m thinking that in 2019 both wide receiver Juwan Johnson, at Oregon, and linebacker Manny Bowen, at Utah, will return to the best form they showed at PSU, having earned their undergraduate degrees at Penn State and ready for a change of scenery and energized by new environs in quality programs. Both have great physical tools and the motivation to do well in their final season of college ball, which would translate into Combine invitations for them both in 2020 — at least one year later than when either thought he would get his ticket punched to Indy.
Johnson had 54 catches for 701 yards in 2017, and at 6-4 and 231 pounds, combined with sharp football acumen and maturity, he could have a very big year with the Ducks, especially with Justin Herbert – career: 7,000 yards, 63 TDs, 17 picks — throwing the ball.
Had Bowen played for Penn State in 2018, he would have been the team’s leading returning tackler with the most returning starts (21) as well. Bowen got his academic house in order, graduated from PSU, and is already listed as a starter on Kyle Whittingham’s depth chart at Utah. (Although both play in the Pac-12, Oregon and Utah don’t meet in 2019.)
A sleeper is Miller, a heady special teams standout at PSU with the fire and the athletic skills to be a black belt. At UMass, he’ll be showcased against a number of headline opponents, including Northwestern, Army and BYU. A ’tweener, Miller may find success if he returns to his original position (safety), where he first played at PSU before moving to linebacker in 2016 when the Nittany Lions went through a glut of injuries at that position.