Looking to the future: PSU experience to help seniors after college

UNIVERSITY PARK – Eric Shrive came to Penn State five years ago from West Scranton touted as a five-star recruit, the player who was going to be the anchor of the Nittany Lion offensive line for years.

It didn’t turn out that way. Shrive got on the field here and there, but his play never reached its hype.

On top of that, Shrive went through the most tumultuous period of Nittany Lion football. The Jerry Sandusky scandal. The firing and death of legendary coach Joe Paterno. NCAA sanctions that stripped the team of scholarships and allowed some of his most talented teammates to transfer and kept them from playing in a bowl game their final two years.

Shrive wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“Absolutely not. This is a great university, a great school. I was very fortunate to be able to come here and get a free education with a lot of great guys,” Shrive said. “Really, I think it’s going to set me up for success when I leave here in two weeks and down the road.”

Before Saturday’s 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska, Shrive and 15 other Lions walked to midfield, joined by their families to be recognized at Beaver Stadium for the last time as outgoing seniors.

“It stings, because it’s senior day, and it’s the last home game, so it’s probably doubled,” said defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, probably the most accomplished of the players announced prior to kickoff. “The emotion, I can’t describe it. Before we got on the bus, I was nervous. I had butterflies all over like it was freshman year. That feeling kind of stuck with me the entire game.”

This senior class went through a lot, and it also had the unenviable position of following the Michael Mauti-Michael Zordich class that was so beloved for how it handled the adversity that its year was placed on the facade of the Beaver Stadium suites alongside those of the Nittany Lions’ other greatest teams.

This class probably won’t enjoy that same treatment, but Lion coach Bill O’Brien recognized its value. During the week leading up to the game, he credited this senior class as being one of the big reasons he returned to Penn State when several NFL teams courted him following the season.

“It has a special place in Penn State history. This senior class stuck with this program and stuck with this university during a very tough, tough time. I think everybody needs to remember that,” O’Brien said. “This senior class will go down as just a special senior class as last year’s senior class. They could’ve left, they chose to stay.”

The other Lions who played their final home game were linebacker Glenn Carson, guard John Urschel, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz, center Ty Howle, tackles Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam, receiver Brandon Felder, safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis, tight end Matt Lehman, punter Alex Butterworth, fullback Pat Zerbe, tackle Kevin Blanchard and guard Bryan Davie.

State College product Alex Kenney also suited up for the final time at Beaver Stadium but didn’t walk out during the pregame ceremony with his classmates for reasons about which O’Brien wouldn’t elaborate. Kenney did get into the game, and O’Brien said Kenney probably would run track at the university.

Both Baublitz and Gilliam could have returned for another year of eligibility but decided against it.

“I’m settled with my decision, and hopefully it plays out the way I’d like it to,” said Gilliam, whose career has been sidetracked by injuries but who will graduate next month with majors in business management, advertising and psychology before hoping to get a shot at playing professional football. “Six years is a long time, especially with what I’ve gone through at Penn State. I just felt that it was time that if the next level’s going to work, then it’s going to work. I’m going to train as hard as I can to make it work, but, if it doesn’t, I have my degrees to fall back on.”

Baublitz, a starter, was expected to return but just decided it was time, too.

“I’m physically and mentally footballed out,” Baublitz said. “I’m ready to move on. It wouldn’t be right for the team if I came back half-in, half-out. You have to be fully committed.”

O’Brien paid a nod to Lehman by letting the tight end, who was injured in the season opener with Syracuse, walk out as one of the captains on Saturday.

“Matt Lehman probably won’t get a sixth year [of eligibility], so I decided to make him a captain today and couldn’t think of a better guy to be captain,” O’Brien said. “He’s a guy we missed this year and just wanted to let him go out there and do the coin toss.”

Lehman was one of the best stories on the team. The only married player on the team, he transferred to Penn State from Shippensburg after experiencing a Nittany Lion game as a fan and walked on. In 2012, he had 24 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s a great guy. He’s been a great leader for us. Even since he was injured, he’s always stayed around us, making sure we stayed level-headed,” sophomore tight end Jesse James said of Lehman.

James said this year’s crop of seniors had a profound effect on him.

“I hang out with a lot of the seniors – Ty Howle, Gress and Carson, Shrive and Zerbe,” James said. “We’re really close as a group. We’re always talking in the locker room. They’re always giving us advice on how fast it goes and how to live college life.”

Jones felt the mark he hoped the 2013 seniors left was one more on the hearts that on the field.

“We just showed that no matter what happens, you don’t have to run. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” Jones said. “I feel this class, as well as last year’s showed people that Penn State is still here, we can still compete with the best, and we’re going to be around for a while.”

Shrive might have been the Penn State fans example of what they wanted a Nittany Lion player to be. He will turn over the presidential reins of Uplifting Athletes to linebacker Ben Kline when he graduates and always was a positive spokesman and role model for the football program. He might be best remembered for carrying Paterno off the field on the night of the late coach’s 400th career win.

Shrive counted the overtime wins against Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois his last two years among his favorite moments, and said he felt sorry the Lions couldn’t add another memory Saturday night. He left Penn State with much, though.

“I think we learned a lot while we were here,” Shrive said. “This isn’t the only adversity we’re going to face in our lives. Moving forward, I think our experiences here at Penn State are going to prepare us for the future.”