Penn State Nittany Lions: Sean Lee

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- And then there was one.

We’ve arrived at the final stop to this week’s countdown of Penn State’s most impactful recruiting classes of the past decade. This top spot was an easy pick, as this class helped bring Penn State out of the “dark years."

No. 1 most impactful class: Class of 2005

Top prospects: QB Daryll Clark, K Kevin Kelly, CB Justin King, OT Dennis Landolt, LB Sean Lee, S Anthony Scirrotto, CB Lydell Sargeant, TE Mickey Shuler, CB Knowledge Timmons, WR Derrick Williams

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonCowboys LB Sean Lee helped rally Penn State from a down period as part of the Class of 2005.
Biggest surprise: Clark. Scout.com listed him as a two-star prospect, and most eyes were on five-star recruit Anthony Morelli from the class before. Plus, with Michael Robinson on the roster, no one initially gave the prep-school product a second look. But Clark bided his time and broke out as an upperclassman. He led the Lions to a Rose Bowl as a redshirt junior and then, as a senior, had one of the finest seasons in PSU history with 3,003 passing yards and 24 TDs to 10 interceptions. He led the Lions to a Capital One Bowl victory over LSU in his final game.

Impact player: Lee. He was overshadowed by Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, but he was still a solid ‘backer in his own right. He was a three-year starter who finished his career within the top five of Penn State’s career tacklers. Athlon Sports even placed him in the top 25 when it came to the best Big Ten linebackers of the BCS era. He was the 2007 Alamo Bowl MVP, a team captain and now a solid NFL player for the Dallas Cowboys.

Why this class is important: This class is basically the 2013 class before 2013. This group committed during the “dark years,” back when PSU had four losing seasons scattered over five years. The Nittany Lions were fighting for a return to national prominence, and some had already written them off.

Then this class came in. King and Williams were both five-star prospects, two players near the top of the rankings, and made a national statement when they committed to Penn State. Williams was widely regarded as the country’s top athlete, and both ended up as All-Big Ten players. This class helped put an end to those dark years. Penn State made seven straight bowl games after they committed.

Landolt, Lee and Scirrotto were three-year starters. Williams and Kelly were four-year starters. And, all together, this class combined for a half-dozen first-team All-Big Ten selections. This class not only had the talent to help turn Penn State around, it helped symbolize and reinforce -- with the help of King and Williams -- PSU’s return to prominence.

More impactful recruiting classes:

No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006
No. 2: Class of 2013

Two PSU assistant coaches leave program

December, 3, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher are no longer with the Penn State football program, according to the school.

The university's official statement said both coaches "have resigned to pursue other opportunities." It wasn't immediately clear what those other opportunities were.

Neither Fisher nor Vanderlinden returned calls from ESPN.com seeking comment.

"I've greatly enjoyed my 13 years at Penn State and all the student-athletes I had an opportunity to work with," Vanderlinden said in a news release. "I wish Coach [Bill] O'Brien and Penn State nothing but the best in the future."

O'Brien will begin a job search immediately and said he will not comment until the positions are filled. Potential candidates are not yet known.

The assistants' departures come just three days after the Nittany Lions clinched their second winning season during unprecedented sanctions. Penn State upset then-No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday, the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, to finish the season at 7-5.

Vanderlinden's departure was considered especially surprising, given his track record. He's been a part of the staff since 2001 and oversaw a program widely known as Linebacker U. He coached several All-Americans such as Michael Mauti, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny -- in addition to NFL stars NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee.

He also played an important role in the commitments of at least a half-dozen pledges for the 2014 class, including four-star linebacker Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum).

"At this point it does not affect my decision," Reeder said earlier in the afternoon. "Coach [Bill] O'Brien and [John] Butler will be coming down to see me today and are going to explain everything in more detail."

Vanderlinden has coached since 1978 and served as Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1996 -- coaching current Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald -- and then coached at Maryland from 1997 to 2000 before landing in Happy Valley.

Fisher was one of O'Brien's first hires at Penn State and helped spring former walk-on Matt McGloin to a school-record 3,266 passing yards in 2012. Fisher arrived at the school after spending one season at Miami (Ohio), where he acted as the quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator. Before that, he was an assistant at Vanderbilt for nine seasons.

"I want to thank Penn State and Coach O’Brien for the opportunity to be a part of the program the past two seasons,” Fisher said in the news release. “It was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished. Now I'm looking forward to the next chapter and making a positive impact on the next group of players I have the privilege of working with."

Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull didn't have any expectations when he strolled into his linebacker coach's office on a warm spring day, but he would leave with words that played on his mind for months.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsMike Hull hopes his hard work and offseason dedication pays off this fall.
The redshirt junior, whose father and uncle both played for Penn State, would routinely reflect on past greats at Linebacker U every time he'd step inside his position coach's workplace. It was difficult not to. Ron Vanderlinden's office was littered with photos and blue-and-white jerseys of the past greats he tutored -- NFL players such as Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti.

Vanderlinden's decorating spoke louder than any résumé or award. Hull knew that. So, about a week before finals, when the seasoned coached leaned in and reflected on the past greats himself, Hull listened intently. And the linebacker coach shared a tidbit that Hull said, deep down, he already knew, but Vanderlinden forced it to sink in: You're next. Your jersey or photo will be in this office soon enough.

"It just hit me then," Hull told ESPN. "I've been playing since my redshirt freshman year, but I was never really 'the guy.' And he just made it clear it's my time to step up."

That feeling, that understanding, never left last season's No. 4 linebacker. After the graduation of PSU's two Butkus Award semifinalists in Mauti and Gerald Hodges, he's "the guy" now -- and he'll be depended on more than ever these next two seasons with a corps short on experience and shorter on depth.

Hull isn't a big talker. He won't regale the media with stories about big hits and future goals. He'll wear a slight smile and speak mostly in short, punctuated sentences. To Hull, actions speak louder than words. So he showed over the summer what those words from Vanderlinden meant.

After intense, two to two-and-a-half hour workouts, players would happily head back to their dorms or apartments. Their legs would ache, pools of sweat would slide down their backs, and they didn't feel much like doing anything except, fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said, maybe take a nap. "Usually, you just want to go home," Carson added.

But Hull would linger after those workouts and head right back to the field. He'd bend over the football sled and pile on five or six plates -- about 300 pounds -- before dragging it across the gridiron. Thirty yards, then 25 yards, then 20 yards to work on his burst. He'd do that for 15-30 minutes.

His teammates would furrow their brows and contort their faces upon seeing Hull stack the sled up with twice as much weight as they were used to. Hull got a kick out of it all.

"They'd look at me like I was a little bit crazy," Hull said with a laugh. "That's what it takes if you want to be good, I guess."

Added coach Bill O'Brien: "Yeah, Mike Hull is one of the best football players on our team. ... He's a guy that means a lot to this football team."

Pick a randon player from Penn State's roster and ask him who had the best offseason. Chances are good that he'll say Hull. The outside linebacker, along with offensive guard John Urschel, received the most nods in a random sampling of eight players. Urschel said Hull was poised for a breakout season, Carson praised his strength, and Malcolm Willis mentioned Hull as a "guy who works his butt off."

It's not difficult to see why. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety after he ran a laser-timed 4.6, and Hull out-lifted the likes of DT DaQuan Jones on the bench-press last year at 405 pounds. "Strength" and "speed" have become buzzwords in the college football lexicon, but Hull remains unique. After all, there aren't many linebackers who run like safeties and bench like defensive tackles.

"Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference," Urschel said. "I mean, you guys have seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."

Hull wouldn't say exactly what his expectations were for this season, nor would he list his goals. Maybe he doesn't have a certain number of turnovers he wants to force or triple-digit tackles he wants to make.

The Penn State linebacker kept it simple when asked, then, why he worked so hard and why those words from Vanderlinden stuck with him so much.

"I just don't want to accept failure," he said. "I don't want to leave anything out on the field."

2014 LB Dwight Williams interested in PSU 

October, 9, 2012
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Linebacker Dwight Williams (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra) realized Penn State was known as "Linebacker U" -- but he didn't think he'd get recruited from the university more than 2,500 miles away.

That changed Sunday when the junior received a Facebook message from Nittany Lions assistant Charles London.

[+] EnlargeDwight Williams
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comGardena, Calif., Class of 2014 linebacker Dwight Williams likes Penn State's tradition of legendary linebackers.
"He said they've been watching me lately and that they'll keep an eye out," the ESPN Watch List prospect said. "Now that he knows I'm interested, he said they'll come a little harder. They didn't before because they had limited scholarships."
Sean LeeAP Photo/Gus RuelasSean Lee has taken long to become one of the most exciting linebackers in the NFL, as he has been a impact player for the Dallas Cowboys.
NittanyNation takes a look at every Penn State player currently playing in the NFL -- where they are, what their role is and what their careers have looked like.

NittanyNation will look at linebackers and punters this morning and defensive linemen and defensive backs this afternoon.

Navorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Height/weight/age: 6-0/242/24
Role: Starter
PSU career: All-Big Ten in 2008 and two-time conference player of the week. Led the team in tackles as a sophomore with 106 (16.5 tackles for loss) and finished second in tackles the next season with 93, along with a team-high 17 TFL. Bowman left school after his junior season.
NFL career: Drafted in the third round in 2010. Played in every game as a rookie and started every game last season. He finished with 143 tackles last year, 111 of which were solo tackles. Named to the Associated Press' first-team All-Pro.

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