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Previewing Penn State Football’s Impact Players: 2023

by Emmet Mahon

Photo courtesy of Black Shoe Diaries.

Prior to the 2022 season, Draft 412 highlighted players who had the potential to catch the eyes of the NFL scouting community. These players could establish themselves as prospects who had the opportunity to be selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. At the time of that preview, it was noted that the class was not deep in elite talent. Joey Porter Jr. was identified as the one player who had first round talent. The rest of his highlighted teammates projected to be mostly day three selections or priority undrafted free agents. It was clear then that the bulk of Penn State’s high-profile talent was one to two years away. That remains the case. This year, Penn State will field several players who will force scouts to attend most of their games. It is possible that the program could produce at least three first round selections during the 2024 NFL Draft.

One way to identify elite players during the season and draft process will be if they are put on a watch list for any of the many high profile college awards. Over the course of the regular season, some prospects will play themselves off from these lists as they are pared down to the semi-finalist and eventually finalist level. A few will force their way onto these lists with unanticipated superior play. There are several awards that will be presented that factor in classroom and community involvement excellence, but for the purpose of this preview, only performance-based awards will be considered.

The following awards will be monitored during the 2023 campaign to measure Penn State players for their projection at the 2024 NFL Draft occurring April 25th through the 27th in Detroit, MI:

The Bednarik Award: Presented by the Maxwell Football Club of Philadelphia, PA. It is presented to the defensive player of the year.

The Biletnikoff Award: Presented by the Tallahassee, FL Quarterback Club Foundation to the nation’s top wide receiver.

The Bronko Nagurski Trophy: Presented by the Charlotte, NC Touchdown Club. It is given to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player.

The Butkus Award: Presented by the Butkus Foundation of Chicago, IL. It is for the nation’s best linebacker.

The Davey O’Brien Award: Presented by The Fort Worth Club, TX to the nation’s best quarterback.

The Doak Walker Award: Presented by the PwC Southern Methodist University Athletic Forum of Dallas, TX to the nation’s premier running back.

The Heisman Memorial Trophy: Presented by the Heisman Trophy Trust of New York, NY to the nation’s most outstanding player.

The Jim Thorpe Award: Presented by the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame of Oklahoma City, OK to the nation’s best defensive back.

The John Mackey Award: Presented by the Friends of John Mackey, administered by the Nassau County Sports Commission, Long Island, NY to the nation’s outstanding tight end.

The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award: Presented by The Golden Arm Educational Foundation of Baltimore, MD to the top upper-class quarterback.

The Lou Groza Award: Presented by the Palm Beach County, FL Sports Commission to the nation’s top place-kicker.

The Maxwell Award: Presented by the Maxwell Football Club of Philadelphia, PA to the college player of the year.

The Outland Trophy: Presented by the Football Writers Association of America to the nation’s most outstanding interior lineman.

The Ray Guy Award: Presented by the Augusta, GA Sports Council to the college punter of the year.

The Rimington Trophy: Presented by the Boomer Esiason Foundation of New York, NY to the nation’s premier center.

The Walter Camp Award: Presented by the Walter Camp Football Foundation of New Haven, CT to the nation’s most outstanding player.

The following are Penn State draft eligible players currently on one or more watch lists:

Dante Cephas, WR is on the Biletnikoff watch list. The Penn Hills native and Kent State transfer was one of the most sough-after athletes in the portal. If sophomore quarterback Drew Allar plays to his potential, Cephas stands to have his draft status improve.

Olumuyiwa “Olu” Fashanu, OT is on the Outland and Walter Camp watch lists. Fashanu would have been a top 10 pick in the 2023 draft but opted to return to PSU for one mor year to complete his studies. He is projected to once again be a top 10 selection and will battle a very good offensive line class for the Outland Trophy.

Curtis Jacobs, LB is on the Butkus watch list. Another player who opted for another season in Happy Valley. Jacobs can vault his value by taking advantage of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s scheme and wealth of talent surrounding him.

Theo Johnson, TE is on the Mackey watch list. The junior tight end is a multi-tiered threat. Adept at receiving and blocking, he plays with old school aggression. His production could be impacted by a deep Penn State tight end roster.

Kalen King, CB is on the watch list for Nagurski, Thorpe and Bednarik awards. King enters the 2023 campaign with equal or superior draft grades as the Pittsburgh Steelers Joey Porter Jr. He will be called upon to shut down the opposition top receiving threat. A solid performance against the exceptional corps of wide receivers from Ohio State could cement round one status.

Dameioun “Chop” Robinson, DE is on the watch list for the Nagurski and Bednarik awards. The Maryland transfer is the third of the three Nittany Lions' potential first round picks. Having excellent interior line play next to him, he will have the opportunity to pile up sacks and tackles for loss.

Riley Thompson P is on the Guy watch list.

The following players are draft eligible and can play their way onto one or more watch lists:

Johnny Dixon, CB will be playing the opposite side of Kalen King. Dixon can play his way on to the

Thorpe watch list and become a viable day two draft prospect.

Keaton Ellis, S is the deep anchor of the formidable Penn State defensive backfield and a candidate to join the Thorpe watch list.

Adisa Isaac, DE will get to the quarterback when Robinson doesn’t. Improved his play every year. Has the potential to join the Nagurski and Bednarik lists.

Kobe King, LB is the twin brother of Kalen King. If there is one spot on Diaz’s defense that is clamoring for a player to grab hold of it and make it his own, it is the inside linebacker. If King can do that, he might be added to the Butkus list.

KeAndre Lambert-Smith, WR was a highly rating high school recruit who has yet to match his potential. With Drew Allar at quarterback, and a variety of weapons drawing attention from him, he could move onto the Biletnikoff watch list.

Hunter Nourzad, C transferred from Cornell to Penn State and is the lynchpin of the talented and deep offensive line. He could attract the interest of the Rimmington watch evaluators.

Jaylen Reed, S is a candidate for the Thorpe watch list while playing alongside Ellis.

Tyler Warren, TE is another candidate from the deep tight end room. He might join his fellow tight end Johnson on a Mackey watch list.

Sal Wormley, OG is another experienced part of the crucial offensive line for Penn State. He has the chance of making the Outland watch list and become another Nittany Lion lineman who is drafted higher than projected.

The following are players not yet eligible to be drafted, but are on pre-season watch lists:

Kaytron Allen, RB is the less-heralded of the Penn State running back tandem, but not less talented. Coming off a freshman year with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, his play has put him on the Walker watch list.

Abdul Carter, LB was phenomenal in his debut season in Happy Valley. He is the player most defensive scouts will follow closely between now and the 2025 NFL Draft. His play jumps off the tape and that is why he is on the watch lists for Nagurski, Butkus, and Bednarik evaluators. He is also a student tutor on campus.

Nicholas Singleton, RB had a freshman season for the ages. Prototypical NFL running back. Has the vision to find the most miniscule holes, the strength to break tackles, and the speed to beat defenders to the end zone. Solid, but not yet exceptional pass catcher. He is on the watch list for the Maxwell, Walker, and Camp awards.

The following are players not eligible to be drafted but could play their way onto pre-season watch lists:

Drew Allar, QB is the crown jewel of the Penn State team. The success of their season will depend largely on the playing of this former five-star recruit. If he plays as coaches and fans hope, he might end up on watch lists for O’Brien and Heisman staffs.

Dani Dennis-Sutton, DE was another standout youngster that played significantly in the first year in State College. Exceptionally strong and quick, he will benefit from splitting reps with Robinson and Isaac. By remaining fresh and occasionally facing backup offensive linemen, he has the makings of a Bednarik and Nagurski watch list candidate.

Kaden Saunders, WR is a highly regarded redshirt freshman that has the tools, and playing with Allar, can become a Biletnikoff watch contender.

Notes: The team named as its captains for the 2023 season S Keaton Ellis, LB Domenic DeLuca, OT Olu Fashanu, WR Malik Meiga, DE Adisa Isaac, and TE Theo Johnson. Redshirt sophomore starting offensive guard Landon Tegwall announced his retirement shortly before the season, citing medical issues. Tegwall had the talent to make his way onto the Outland watch list and was a day three prospect had he made himself available in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Emmet Mahon can be reached at

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