Penn State may not have had the 2020 season many were expecting, but their prospects headed for the 2021 NFL Draft should certainly make some noise at the next level.
The Nittany Lions finished the year at 4-5 after finishing at 11-2 back in 2019. Key departures took place along their roster, including five starters leaving for the NFL and the opting out of the season by linebacker Micah Parsons. Regardless, they have still produced an incredibly talented class of players for the 2021 draft, and as many as three of them could have their names called in Round 1.
Thursday marked the Pro Day for eight of their players, during which they had the chance to partake in drills in front of 31 NFL teams, including the Bears. One can only hope that Chicago was paying close attention to the action, seeing how dominant Penn State’s prospects were in drills.
Parsons entered Thursday as the most highly-touted player on the field, and he certainly backed that up with his performance in drills. Running an incredible 4.39 40-yard dash and posting a strong 10-foot-6 broad jump and a 6.89 three-cone drill, the 2019 consensus All-American showed once again why he is widely projected as the best linebacker in this year’s draft.
“The Big Ten had an unknown on the season, and with COVID spiking, I thought there was a chance they’d cancel again,” Parsons told Windy City Gridiron of his decision to opt out of the season. “Honestly, I did want to come back. My family made the decision that it was already too late, and I was already training, so I’ve just been training since September all the way out to now. I’m just glad that this whole training thing’s done and I can finally relax and be with my family.”
Edge rusher Jayson Oweh has been well-documented as an athletic specimen, and he solidified that status on Thursday. At 6-foot-5 and 257 pounds, Oweh ran a blazing 4.36 40-yard dash, a 39.5-inch vertical jump, an 11-foot-2 broad jump, and a 6.83 three-cone drill. All aforementioned drills placed him in the 96th percentile or higher among edge rushers. His athletic traits are obvious on film, but he notes that he has been working more on his technique and football IQ in this pre-draft process.
“[I’ve been working on] using my athleticism in the right places and the right ways,” Oweh explained. “Obviously, I’m very athletic, sometimes I tend to lean on it a little too much, and that can be bad because a lot of people can watch if you’re rushing too fast and you don’t have a counter move. [I’m] also relying more on my technique, as well. I’m an unorthodox guy; I can get things done my way. When you’re at the next level, you got to do things a specific way and be effective with it, so just tightening up the technique and my general knowledge of the game, as well.”
Though Oweh stole the show with his Pro Day performance, it was actually fellow edge rusher Shaka Toney who led Penn State in sacks in 2020. The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder had a strong outing of his own, running a 4.51 40-yard dash with a 39-inch vertical and 24 bench press reps. His performance in the bench press actually helped him raise money for the Boys and Girls Club of America, using his Pro Day as a means to give back to his West Philadelphia community.
“I started out at $2,400, but so many people are donating, and I’m just so grateful,” commented Toney. “Especially from the Penn State community, I got a lot of flooded inboxes. People are donating, $10, $25, it doesn’t matter. Giving back is something that we all can do. It doesn’t take a skill; it’s not a job. It’s something that’s out of the kindness of your heart. I believe we’re at $4,000, $4,500, in that range. [We] well exceeded to the $2,400 I started at. It just means the world, knowing that people care.
“I know a lot of times, a lot of us want to give back, but we don’t know, so I just wanted to give people an avenue and a lane, like, ‘alright, I know Shaka Toney. He’s a guy that really wants to make a change in communities, so I can get behind him and give my money to him’ — not me, personally [laughs], but to the foundation. The money’s going to go exactly where it’s supposed to go. I’m not a materialistic person: I’m going to do everything I can to donate, raise as much money, and give as much back as I can.”
It’s not just Penn State’s defense that features NFL talent, though. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is the consensus TE2 in the 2021 class behind Florida’s Kyle Pitts, and with 16 touchdowns over the past three seasons, it’s no surprise that many draft analysts project the Nittany Lions standout as one of the top offensive weapons in this year’s draft. He’s a big player at 6-foot-5 and played the 2020 season at around 260 pounds, but his athleticism and pass-catching abilities have teams projecting him less in an in-line role than most his size.
“The consensus [in talking to NFL teams] is that I’m going to be that move tight end,” Freiermuth responded to Windy City Gridiron. “Most of the teams that are talking to me want me as their ‘F’ tight end and move around the ball. They feel very comfortable in 11 personnel — obviously, in 12, they’ll put me in the ‘Y’. I think that shows they think I’m versatile, but they see me at that ‘F’ [spot]. They told me they wanted me to drop a little weight, so now I weigh at 251, 252. That’s probably what I’ll play at in my rookie season, depending on where I go.”