Rudel: PSU departures underscore transition

The number of college football underclassmen bypassing a final season of eligibility to take their chances in the NFL Draft is down considerably since last year.

A record 98 players jumped early in 2014, but as of Friday that number has been cut by nearly 30 percent as 63 were rolling the dice.

There may be a couple of explanations for the dropoff: 1) Of last year’s mad rush, 45 endured three days of quiet torture and weren’t selected; 2) The NFL changed its evaluation process, informing players seeking information if they were projected to be first- or second-round picks only and, if not, advising them to stay in school.

Apparently, this information fell on some deaf ears at Penn State as three underclassmen – offensive tackle Donovan Smith, defensive end Deion Barnes and tight end Jesse James – declared for the draft.

A fourth, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, is staying put, even though the deadline to file is Thursday.

All of them stayed with Penn State through the scandal and deserve credit for that.

Of those departing, James has the highest upside and could go on the second day as he’s projected as a possible third-round selection.

He was outstanding in Bill O’Brien’s offense that featured the tight end, but he struggled to block this year and though his 38 catches marked a three-year high, his yards per catch went from 18.4 and five touchdowns as a freshman to 13.3 as a junior and 10.4 this year.

With added weight and strength, and the right system, James could make it. He won’t even be 21 until June.

Barnes showed flashes as a freshman, when he led the Lions in sacks (six) and tackles for loss (10) and was the Big Ten rookie of the year. But he’s been average since, disappearing for long stretches and failing to surpass four tackles – and two solos – in any of the last six games.

Like Barnes, Smith has graduated, and like Barnes, Smith did not have the look of a sure-fire NFL player.

Smith’s departure was the least surprising, and he confirmed that by all but announcing his plans a few hours after taking off his uniform at the Pinstripe Bowl. Smith has been overweight for some time, and James Franklin noted it more than once.

We don’t know the players’ individual or family needs, and sometimes these guys have worn out on college. The days of players leaving only if they’re going to be first-round picks are long gone, but their haste can sometimes turn into expensive mistakes in part because they listened to an agent who overestimated their stock.

Coaching turnover often lends itself to these kinds of decisions as the staff typically doesn’t know the upperclassmen well enough to change agendas.

While the Lions lost some underclassmen, they’re fortunate to keep defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who proved to be a sharp tactician in his inaugural season at Penn State, which ranked among the national leaders in total defense.

Shoop was impressive enough that LSU flirted with him for its vacant position and apparently brought enough interest that Franklin and Sandy Barbour proactively offered him a raise. Even though Altoona native and assistant head coach Brent Pry would have been the likely choice to replace Shoop, retaining continuity and keeping Shoop was important.

In his case, the timing wasn’t right in that his family is just now moving here, having built a house after staying in the Nashville area for his son’s senior football season.

Change and potential change are not things Penn State football fans are used to, but that doesn’t make it bad though it does increase uncertainty and real transition.

For many, many years, the Nittany Lions had almost no offseason departures, players or coaches, and that stability made for better and at times worse.

Franklin’s ability to manage what figures to be inevitable change over these next few seasons will determine if the Lions can someday close the gap with Ohio State.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or