Penn State Football

How 4 former Nittany Lions’ NFL dreams are ‘coming true’ with the Philadelphia Eagles

Miles Sanders talks about Penn State presence on Eagles

Sanders is one of four Nittany Lions in Philadelphia’s rookie mini-camp.
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Sanders is one of four Nittany Lions in Philadelphia’s rookie mini-camp.

A day after he was selected No. 53 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles, Miles Sanders hung out at the NovaCare Complex following his introductory press conference and watched the fourth round of the ongoing draft. At one point, Sanders turned to an Eagles official and asked, “Where is Shareef Miller on your draft board?” The answer? “Right there.”

“Right then he got drafted. So I Facetime’d him,” the former Penn State running back said Friday, smiling at his new Eagles locker. “He’s from here, so it was more special for him. But I went crazy.”

That unbridled joy and camaraderie between former Penn State teammates extended after the draft concluded, too. Two unselected Nittany Lions — offensive lineman Ryan Bates and wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins — joined the Eagles, leading to all four Penn State players exchanging texts. Can’t wait to get started. Can’t wait to get to Philly. Let’s get things going.

Three weeks later, the former Nittany Lions have done just that. Sanders, Miller, Bates and Thompkins — along with 46 other prospects — kicked off their NFL careers Friday at Philadelphia’s three-day, rookie minicamp at the NovaCare Complex.

Sanders caught passes from Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. Miller ran D-line drills alongside seven undrafted pass-rushers. Thompkins handled kickoff and punt returns while Bates blocked under the supervision of respected assistant coach Jeff Stoutland. The quartet took the field in Philly for the first time — and did so together.

“It’s a good feeling to have people that you’ve been through so much with,” Thompkins said. “It’s having people you can lean on, guys you can talk to, guys that know you personally. ... To have the comfort of looking across in a huddle and know I’ve got someone I’ve been in a huddle with for four years is pretty cool.”

Added Bates: “We’re all pretty close, so it’s nice.”

Penn State’s presence is rare, too. When the Eagles drafted Sanders and Miller last month, it was the first time since Tony Hunt in 2007 that a Nittany Lion was selected by Philadelphia. In the common draft era (since 1970), the only other time Philadelphia picked two Penn State players in the same year was 1979 (WR Scott Fitzkee, OL Chuck Correal).

Moreover, Philadelphia never had a Penn State player on its roster from 2010 through 2016. And, according to Pro Football Reference, the last time the Eagles had more than one Nittany Lion on-board was 1997 (S Mike Zordich, WR Michael Timpson).

If Sanders, Miller, Thompkins and Bates prove themselves worthy of a spot, Philadelphia could have four from Happy Valley on its 53-man roster come September. That won’t be an issue for Sanders, who’s seen as an immediate contributor. Miller shouldn’t have to sweat that out, either, as a fourth-round pick. But for Thompkins and Bates, a pair of undrafted free agents, making the roster is the goal — one that starts this weekend.

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said rookie minicamp is a chance for prospects to “begin the process of their development.” As far as what he wants to see out of the Penn State players, Pederson said they are “no different than any of the rookies that we’ve got.”

“All these guys come in kind of wide-eyed. For a guy like Shareef who’s coming back home, it’s exciting for him to be a part of this organization that he grew up watching. Even having Miles Sanders at Penn State, he’s probably watched us, the Steelers, the Ravens, this area of the country,” Pederson added. “We just have to make sure that they stay focused on task. This is their job. This is their opportunity to begin their legacy in the National Football League and put their mark on their careers.”

And it’s a chance for all four Nittany Lions — Sanders, Miller, Bates and Thompkins — to do that together.

“It’s cool seeing how things came up and ended up the way they did, having three former teammates still be my teammates,” Sanders said. “We’re going through the same thing. It’s just on a different level. Our dreams are coming true.”