The bests of Penn State football
More from the series
Penn State football: The all-time Top 10 at each position
We’ve reached the end of the media/player portion of our summer football series ranking the top-10 Penn State players at each position.
The results of the fan poll will be released Saturday. But, since this is the final piece involving the media/players, we decided to make it count. We asked our panel to rank the top-3 all-time Penn State players on both offense and defense — and we scored the results Heisman-style, with three points for first place, two points for second and one for third.
Two participants declined to take part, so this specific ranking is from a 10-person panel (listed below). A perfect score would’ve been 30.
Without further ado, here are the best overall offensive and defensive players in the Nittany Lions’ storied history, based on the opinion of our panel:
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
3. Shane Conlan, LB, 1983-1986
Total points: 8 (1 first-place vote)
Even Division II schools didn’t come calling for Conlan. He was a small player (175 pounds) on a small high school team.
Fortunately for him — and for Penn State fans — a young assistant by the name of Tom Bradley did see something. He convinced Joe Paterno to pull the trigger and the rest, as they say, is history.
Conlan went on to become a two-time All-American and an inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame. He also had a productive NFL career, becoming one of the Buffalo Bills’ best-ever players regardless of position.
Said Penn State great Jack Ham, back in 1989: “There’s not a weakness in his game. That’s a big statement for me to make, that the guy can play the complete game. He could well rank as one of the best linebackers of all-time.”
Added former Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey: “Shane’s presence just assures everybody around him that, ‘You’d better keep moving. Because, if you don’t, he just might nail you to the cross.’”
2. Jack Ham, LB, 1968-1970
Total points: 11 (2 first-place votes)
If you’re paying attention, this is not the same order as our top-10 linebackers list. But let us remind you: Carl Nassib was once named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year while not being named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
This is easier to understand. Some of our voters felt rather strongly about Ham and Conlan; in the top-10 lists, those strong feelings didn’t carry as much weight — a first-place vote and no vote were equivalent, points-wise, to two sixth-place votes. Here, a first-place vote carried a lot more weight.
And Ham obviously deserved them.
He’s in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He was part of two undefeated Penn State teams and four Super Bowl champions. He was a consensus All-American and an eight-time Pro Bowler. He blocked three punts in his final season with the Nittany Lions and had seven picks in his second season with the Steelers. The list of stats, feats and accolades goes on and on and on ...
Not bad for a player who very nearly didn’t even try out for the football team.
1. LaVar Arrington, LB, 1997-1999
Total points: 19 (5 first-place votes)
Three linebackers in Penn State’s top-3 defensive players of all-time? Well, it is called Linebacker U for a reason.
Arrington declared for the NFL after his junior season, so his career stats aren’t among Penn State’s best-ever. But he was a man among boys at the college level. Look no further than this play — the LaVar Leap — to jog your memory about his monster athleticism.
We’ll let our player panelists take it from here:
Said former wideout Joe Nastasi: “LaVar Arrington was the single-most destructive defensive player I have ever been around. The only comparable (player) would be HOF’er Lawrence Taylor.”
Added Penn State great Adam Taliaferro, recalling his first recruiting trip to PSU as a high school junior: “I remember walking in to the locker room and seeing LaVar Arrington sitting at his locker. I swear he had a special glow around him. He was my favorite college player at the time, but I was on my recruiting trip so I had to play it cool the first time I met him, but today I’m honored to call him a friend. The best defensive player to come through PSU in my opinion.”
Others receiving votes: LB Paul Posluszny (7), DT Mike Reid (7), DE Dave Robinson (3), LB Sean Lee (2), DE Courtney Brown (1), DT Bruce Clark (1), DB Mark Robinson (1)
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYERS
3. Curt Warner, RB, 1979-1982
Total points: 6
Warner was the No. 4 running back in our earlier top-10 rankings, but beat out two rushers ahead of him — Heisman winner John Cappelletti and No. 1 overall pick Ki-Jana Carter — to make this list as the No. 3 offensive player in program history. And it’s warranted. Warner was an All-American in 1981 and 1982, and his 1,376 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns had a hand in Penn State’s first national title. That season completed a legendary career for Warner, who surpassed Lydell Mitchell as the program’s all-time leading rusher — a record that stood for 25 years. Warner was also known to step up in the Nittany Lions’ biggest games. In his three bowl games as a starter, the West Virginia native tallied 417 yards and four touchdowns. If he had landed at the No. 1 running back spot, few would have batted an eye.
2. Kerry Collins, QB, 1992-1994
Total points: 11 (1 first-place vote)
Collins — the best quarterback to ever come through Penn State who compiled one of the greatest seasons in Big Ten history — is finally a College Football Hall of Fame inductee. The 1994 Maxwell Award recipient led an undefeated, scoring juggernaut (47.8 points per game). Collins was the key to the ‘94 Nittany Lions, who broke 14 program records and led the NCAA in total offense (520.2 yards per game). When Collins left Penn State, he held school records in total offense, completions, passing yardage, completion percentage, yards per attempt and passing efficiency.
“Players like Kerry Collins don’t come around very often,” former Penn State offensive coordinator Fran Ganter said in a statement after Collins’ HOF announcement. “In my more than 30 years on the Penn State sidelines, Kerry was one of the strongest leaders, most gifted athletes and finest young men I ever had the honor to coach.”
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, 2015-2017
Total points: 29 (9 first-place votes)
Barkley’s first-place votes nearly matched Collins’ total points. The panel, former players and media members alike, felt as though Barkley was the greatest offensive player in the history of the program. It wasn’t even close. And who could blame them? His 43 rushing touchdowns and 53 total touchdowns rank first in Penn State history, while his 5,538 all-purpose yards are most of any three-year Big Ten player. Barkley is just the fourth player in conference history to accumulate 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a career — and the other three needed four seasons to do it.
To list all of Barkley’s records and stats would be overkill — and it would take a lot of time. Barkley’s “career notes and records” section on Penn State’s official website runs 799 words long. But the numbers don’t lie in Barkley’s case. And neither do his peers and opposition. Throughout his career, Barkley has been lauded by teammates, foes, alumni and analysts.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who has been coaching college football for three decades, said, “He’s the best all-purpose guy we’ve probably faced.” Evan Royster, Penn State’s all-time leading rusher, thinks there should be “a different category” of running back created for him. And 2005 Maxwell Award winner Larry Johnson heaped even higher praise on Barkley. “Hopefully in years to come, in 40 or 60 years,” Johnson said, “he’ll be up there with one of the players who gets a retired jersey.”
Others receiving votes: RB Ki-Jana Carter 5, RB Lenny Moore 3, WR Bobby Engram 2, RB Curtis Enis 1, TE Ted Kwalick 1, QB Trace McSorley 1, RB Lydell Mitchell 1
Voters in this panel: (Players) 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