Penn State Football

Who’s Penn State’s best-ever DB? Voted No. 1 overall, he was no one’s top pick

Penn State safety Marcus Allen and linebacker Jason Cabinda stop Maryland running back Lorenzo Harrison III.
Penn State safety Marcus Allen and linebacker Jason Cabinda stop Maryland running back Lorenzo Harrison III.

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Penn State football: The all-time Top 10 at each position

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We’re now on Day 3 of our summer series covering Penn State’s storied history.

After running backs and defensive tackles were ranked, it’s time to figure out the top defensive backs in the Nittany Lions’ 130-plus seasons of competition. The secondary was the biggest source of contention out of all our position groups, and you’ll soon see why.

As a reminder, we organized a group of 12 experts — six former players, six media members — to vote on the top-10 all-time players at each position. Each day we’ll release a new position, and if you think we missed something, you can vote in our fan poll, which will be released on July 22.

Here are Penn State’s top-10 defensive backs based on the opinion of our 12-person panel:

T-10. Bryan Scott, 1999-2002

Best ranking / worst: No. 2 / Unranked

Career stats: 202 tackles, 6 INTs, 22 pass breakups

Scott was a three-year starter who played in 48 career games, a versatile athlete who boasted 4.34 speed and had the ability to make plays all over the field for Penn State. The Bucks County native also played 10 seasons in the NFL, leading all Atlanta Falcons’ DBs in tackles as a rookie and eventually moving to linebacker with the Buffalo Bills and also excelling there. He was the 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year.

T-10. Justin King, 2005-2007

Best ranking / worst: No. 5 / Unranked

Career stats: 90 tackles, 3 INTs, 23 pass breakups

Think Scott was fast? King was faster. His 4.31-second 40 was the second-fastest of all prospects during the 2008 NFL Combine, and King’s closing speed was hard to top while in college. He came to Happy Valley as one of the nation’s top high school prospects, played both ways as a freshman and became a two-time all-conference player in his final two seasons before declaring early for the NFL draft.

9. Marcus Allen, 2014-2017

Best ranking / worst: No. 4 / Unranked

Career stats: 321 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 11 passes defended, 1 INT

Allen could’ve left early for the NFL, but he stayed for his senior season — and that decision helped cement his legacy as one of the Nittany Lions’ best ever. He finished his career with the fifth-most tackles in school history and blocked the field goal attempt against Ohio State in 2016 that will be replayed as long as Beaver Stadium still stands.

8. Pete Harris; 1977-1978, 1980

Best ranking / worst: No. 3 / Unranked

Career stats: 15 INTs

The younger brother of Franco, Pete wasn’t a tackling machine — but he didn’t have to be. He was a ballhawk through and through. His 10 interceptions during his 1978 All-America campaign led the nation, and his 15 career interceptions are second all-time in school history. His three picks against No. 5 Maryland in 1978 were also part of one of the most impressive overall defensive efforts in the Penn State annals.

7. Mike Zordich, 1982-1985 (1 first-place vote)

Best ranking / worst: No. 1 / Unranked

Career stats: 201 tackles, 8 INTs

A hard-hitter and a co-captain, Zordich was a leader who never gave up on a play. He was an All-American strong safety who made an immediate impression his senior year — when he returned a pick 32 yards for a touchdown in the season opener’s first minute. His never-say-die attitude carried over to the NFL; he was a ninth-round draft pick who was cut as a rookie. He went on to have a successful 12-season NFL career.

6. Wally Triplett, 1946-1948 (3 first-place votes)

Best ranking / worst: No. 1 / Unranked

Career stats: Not available for this time period

The first African-American starter for Penn State, Triplett set a lot of precedents for the Nittany Lions — and, in a way, for football. He became the first drafted player to compete in an NFL game, and Penn State refused to play Miami (Fla.) when the segregated school demanded Triplett and Dennie Hoggard stay home. Triplett was an incredible athlete, a two-way back who impressed both ways and earned recognition soon after his first start against Michigan State. He’s in the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame after becoming the first African-American to play in the bowl and helping to tie SMU 13-13.

5. Neal Smith, 1967-1969 (3 first-place votes)

Best ranking / worst: No. 1 / Unranked

Career stats: 19 INTs

Joe Paterno called him a 1-in-400 shot, back when he was a walk-on sophomore who worked his way into the starting lineup. Turns out it was more like 1-in-a-million. “I just wanted to see if I could make it,” Smith told the Reading Eagle in 1967. Smith went from walk-on to All-American, racking up eight interceptions in 1968 and setting a single-season school record (since tied by Pete Harris in 1978) with 10 picks as a senior. He still holds the Penn State career record for interceptions, a mark that may very well be untouchable in today’s game.

4. Lenny Moore, 1953-1955 (2 first-place votes)

Best ranking / worst: No. 1 / Unranked

Career stats: 10 INTs

Feeling some deja vu? Yes, Moore was also on this list earlier in the week as one of Penn State’s best-ever running backs. But JoePa once called the two-way player probably the best all-around athlete he had ever coached — and our panel agreed. Moore had 10 career interceptions, including a team-leading six in 1954. He made a bigger name for himself as a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, but his impact at Penn State was felt on both ends of the field. He’s the only player who made multiple top-10 lists in our rankings.

3. Mark Robinson, 1981-1983 (1 first-place vote)

Best ranking / worst: No. 1 / Unranked

Career stats: 9 INTs

The hard-hitting safety was a consensus All-American in 1982 after recording 70 tackles and four picks. Without him, the 1983 Sugar Bowl win and national championship may have just wound up a distant dream. He had two interceptions and nine tackles in that 27-23 win over Georgia. Just how committed was Robinson? He, along with other teammates, took ballet lessons to improve their agility and joked about being prepared to hear Swan Lake whenever knocking down a pass.

2. Kim Herring, 1993-1996

Best ranking / worst: No. 2 / Unranked

Career stats: 212 tackles, 13 INTs

Herring played both running back and safety as a freshman before settling into the secondary. Needless to say, it seems as if Penn State made the right decision. Herring is fourth all-time in career interceptions, and no one has been able to top his total in the last two decades. Herring was known as a sure tackler and one of the team’s hardest workers. Said friend and teammate Shino Prater, back in 1996: “He’s just a great athlete. I wish I could do what he’s doing every day.”

1. Darren Perry, 1988-1991

Best ranking / worst: No. 2 / Unranked

Career stats: 15 INTs, 3 INT TDs

What we’ve got here is a repeat of the 1978 Heisman Trophy vote (sorry, Chuck Fusina): The man with the most first-place votes didn’t come in first.

But just about everyone agreed Perry was one of the very best, which pushed him to the top. All but one panelist had Perry ranked in the top 10 — the most votes, by far, of any other DB — and half of our panel had him ranked within their top 3.

The Virginia native tied for second all-time in career interceptions and, since 1979, he and Herring are the only defensive backs who had at least seven picks in a single season. Perry even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1990 after a crucial interception led to Penn State’s shocking win over then-No. 1 Notre Dame. He was a first-team All-American in 1991, and our panel unanimously felt — at least when it came to the modern era — that Perry was the absolute best.

Top DB honorable mentions: David Macklin, 1996-1999; Alan Zemaitis, 2002-2005; Tony Pittman, 1992-1994; Ray Isom, 1984-1986; Richie Lucas, 1957-1959 (1 first-place vote); Adrian Amos, 2011-2014

Voters in our panel: (Players) Keith Conlin, 1992-1995; Bill Contz, 1980-1982; Stephon Morris, 2009-2012; Joe Nastasi, 1995-1998; A.Q. Shipley, 2005-2008; Adam Taliaferro, 2000; (Media) Nate Bauer, Blue White Illustrated; Matt Brown, The Athletic; Cory Giger, Altoona Mirror; John McGonigal, Centre Daily Times; Josh Moyer, Centre Daily Times; Mark Wogenrich, Allentown Morning Call

How the voting was done: Each voter was given an online survey, with 20-50 players at each position, to rank 1-10. If a player was not listed, voters were given the option for a write-in. First-place votes gave players 10 points, second-place votes gave them 9, etc. We then added all the point totals together to find our top 10; honorable mentions have received at least 10 total points.