One Last Roar for Penn State’s Final Four

Remaining players from the Nittany Lions’ 2010 recruiting class set for their last game at Beaver Stadium.

For every senior class there is a story, and the story of the one that will be honored Saturday in Beaver Stadium is filled with plot twists nobody could have foreseen when some of them -- emphasis on the word “some” -- committed to Penn State in early 2010.

There were 20 players in that class, which turned out to be one of the last wooed by the late Joe Paterno and his staff, and it was widely celebrated as one of the best in the country at the time.

Four remain healthy and active.

The Final Four -- defensive end Brad Bars, guard Miles Dieffenbach (shown above), linebacker Mike Hull and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan -- will be among 17 players saluted before the regular-season finale against Michigan State, their meager ranks augmented by those from the 2011 recruiting class who sped through the program in four years (notably safety Adrian Amos and kicker Sam Ficken) and walk-ons (notably safety Ryan Keiser).

Keiser, who would later earn a scholarship, is one of those who is out, having broken a rib last month. So too is running back Zach Zwinak, with a knee injury.

“We obviously came in with a lot of guys,” Dieffenbach said earlier this week “The guys that survived and thrived through it, our senior class now, it's a special group of guys that have been through a lot together and care a lot about each other. It's going to be a great day on Saturday.”

He described his class as “very tight,” the result of weathering the Sandusky scandal, the resultant NCAA sanctions and repeated coaching changes.

“We've obviously all bonded together,” he said, “knowing that we've stuck through it and done well and thrived.”

Hull likewise said he is “a lot more close” with those who have remained. And having such a small class, he added, “has its benefits and has its challenges, as far as leadership goes.”

Two members of that 2010 class -- wide receiver Levi Norwood and defensive back Shyquawn Pulliam -- never arrived on campus. Norwood, son of former PSU assistant coach Brian Norwood, requested a release from his scholarship so he could join his dad at Baylor. Pulliam never enrolled.

Eight others transferred, at various points and for various reasons: quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU, then Eastern Michigan), linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State), offensive lineman Khamrone Kolb (Fordham), quarterback Paul Jones (Robert Morris), wide receiver Alex Kenney (Massachusetts), running back Silas Redd (USC) and offensive tackle Tom Ricketts (Pitt).

Four others did not play out their eligibility, again for various reasons: defensive lineman Kyle Baublitz, offensive lineman Luke Graham, defensive tackle Evan Hailes and linebacker Dakota Royer.

And one, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, departed after the 2013 season for the NFL. He was drafted in the fourth round this past spring by the Tennessee Titans.

All that, coupled with Zwinak's injury, leaves four.

“This senior class is phenomenal,” junior cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “When I came in as a freshman, a lot of these guys were here. They told me what it was, to try and be a leader, because they stayed through everything. When these guys leave, it just leaves my class, (as) the one that stayed here during the sanctions.”

Lucas has particularly high regard for Keiser, and not only because they both play in the secondary or because they were roommates the night before home and away games during Lucas' first two years on the team. It's also because Keiser is a deeply spiritual man, Lucas said.

“He's taught me to have faith, and he's just always told me to be positive,” he said, “because one thing Keiser is all the time is positive. There's not one time since I've known him, (that he has been) a negative man. That's not who he is. When things aren't going well, I look to Keiser, because he's always positive. There's always positive energy around him.”

Keiser spent three weeks at Hershey Medical Center after suffering his rib injury, and only returned to campus last week. While he will not be able to play Saturday or in the bowl game, coach James Franklin said Keiser's mere presence “has been big for all of us.”

“It's had a big impact on me,” Franklin said. “I'm hoping he'll be able to travel with us this weekend and get a chance to visit with the guys. He's already a very, very mature kid -- really sees the big picture, very spiritual, was already married. He's got a unique perspective for a college athlete.”

Lucas said it would “mean everything” to him to see Keiser run out of the south tunnel before Saturday's game.

Others will attach their own meaning to the day. Dieffenbach, for instance, tore his left ACL in spring practice and vowed to return at some point during the season - and did so, three weeks ago at Indiana.

“Obviously I want to be out there with my family and my brothers on Senior Day,” he said, “so that was always something I definitely wanted to be back for.”

It will be an emotional day, he believes. And a day everyone will be looking to end on a high note.

“We're a bunch of fighters,” Dieffenbach said, more or less reprising something former coach Bill O'Brien said after a season-ending victory over Wisconsin two years ago, “and we're going to fight to the end. We're going to bring our best out to this last game, and we're going to play our hearts out.”

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