It’s crazy to think about it now, but perhaps the greatest football player in Penn State history was barely even recruited to play college football.
Everyone knows his name now: Jack Ham.
But back in 1966 — granted, when recruiting was much, much different — Ham wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s recruiting radar.
As we get set for national signing day Wednesday, hundreds of high-profile recruits who get all kinds of attention will be signing to play for the college of their choice.
But let’s not forget, college football is made up of thousands of players, many of whom came out of nowhere to become stars in college and/or eventually the NFL.
Penn State has seen numerous unheralded recruits over the years go on to become big-time players in college or the pros. Here’s a look back at some familiar names who fall into that category.
LB Jack Ham
One of the greatest linebackers of all time and a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Some longtime PSU fans may know his story, but there’s a good chance many don’t.
Here’s a fantastic look at what Ham went through, from a story by the Sporting News in 2017.
Ham was — to put it kindly — a lightly recruited player out of high school. Following high school, he went to prep school for a year at Massanutten in Woodstock, Va., playing what he thought was his final season of football. He now admits he didn’t stand out, or even play as much, as he would have liked.
He had no scholarship offers, no real interest from colleges during his time at the academy. He seemed destined to move on from football. … Ham had a teammate, Steve Smear, who was recruited and offered a scholarship by Penn State. When one of the Nittany Lions committed players instead switched up his recruitment and chose Iowa, Smear reached out to the coaching staff and suggested Ham. Smear saw potential in his teammate, even if no college coaches at the time saw it. Ham didn’t have a single college scholarship offer.
So after watching some game tape — “there was no highlight package of Jack Ham” — and hearing Smear’s recommendation, the Penn State coaching staff reached out to Ham late in the spring before his freshman year of college. The irony is that Ham planned on enrolling at Penn State, though football was out of the equation. He didn’t even plan on attempting to walk on to the team. Ham was going to go to class, work and be a normal student.
QB Matt McGloin
His story is well known because it’s all happened in the past decade. The Scranton kid, who earned the nickname “Moxie,” was a zero-star recruit who did not have a single Division I scholarship offer.
McGloin came to Penn State at a time when the program had been going through some high-profile QB recruits who fizzled out. There were the likes of 4-star guys like Kevin Newsome and Paul Jones, and also Rob Bolden, who in 2010 became the first true freshman to start at quarterback during the Joe Paterno era.
McGloin proved to be significantly better than Bolden, but yet still had to deal with Joe and Jay Paterno making peculiar decisions about the starting QB position into the 2011 season. McGloin finally wound up getting the job and started in 2012 under Bill O’Brien, then he went on to play in the NFL for several seasons.
Of all the high-profile QBs Penn State has recruited this century, McGloin is the only one who has started a game in the NFL. He made seven starts total.
“When he says everyone doubted him, that’s pretty much true,” Donnie Collins of the Scranton Times-Tribune told NSN. “Scranton is a smaller city, and while he had support, there was also skepticism. For sure, our high school writers all thought he’d have been better off at an FCS school.
“To see him get into that game in Minnesota in 2010 and lead a comeback, I figured that was a story for the people back home that would be super memorable if it only lasted a day. And he goes on to set Penn State records and have a fairly nice run in the NFL.
“I’ve been lucky to cover some really big-time athletes that have come through Scranton and some others who were born here. Not many even compare to McGloin, from a personality and tenacity perspective. You just don’t see guys go from walk-on to one of the 4-5 most important players of a decade for a program of Penn State’s ilk. If you know him even a little bit, you know what Scranton is like. He’ll always be a tough story to beat, for me.”
LB Shane Conlan
Another one of the greatest players in Penn State history, he has a story similar to that of Jack Ham’s — as in he wasn’t highly recruited at all.
David Jones of PennLive wrote an exceptional piece about Conlan in 2014 when he was going into the College Football Hall of Fame. Jones described how former PSU assistant coach Tom Bradley was able to find a diamond in the rough at a small high school in New York.
One day in ’81, (Tom) Bradley saw some video of a linebacker he found mildly intriguing. Such that it was. It was an 8mm film pushed at him by a high school coach from the hinterlands of western New York state.
“It was like the old Polaroid home movie stuff your parents took,” Bradley remembered when I called him Friday. “It looked like it was shot from the top of a bus.”
The film finally arrived in the mail on Jan. 29, 1982, a Friday, exactly five days before national signing day. By then, Bradley had practically forgotten about Conlan.
The coach had just come off the road from recruiting, opened the package and spooled the 8mm film onto a projector.
“His team wasn’t great, but this kid was really good. I called up Tommy Sharp and asked who was recruiting him, and he said nobody.”
Conlan certainly became somebody. A big somebody. He won the 1986 national title at PSU and was a star for the Buffalo Bills, becoming a three-time All-Pro. As he said in the PennLive story:
“I owe Tom everything,” Conlan said. “If he hadn’t given me a shot, if he hadn’t convinced Joe that I was the right kid for them, who knows what would have become of me?”
DE Carl Nassib
A zero-star recruit, he walked on at Penn State in 2011 and was skinny for a defensive end. But he blew up his senior year, turning in one of the greatest defensive seasons in PSU history. He finished with 15 ½ sacks, 19 ½ tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and one interception.
Nassib won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s best lineman or linebacker and was a finalist for the Nagurski Award for top defensive player.
Nassib’s rise his senior year was remarkable. No one could have seen it coming, but he turned himself into a terrific football player and was selected in the third round of the NFL draft. He’s currently a member of the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Absolutely transformed himself from a 220-pound walk-on to an All-American defensive end who ended up giving his Cleveland Browns teammates financial advice on HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks,'” Sports Illustrated’s Mark Wogenrich told NSN.
WR Deon Butler
He was a 1-star cornerback recruit who walked on at Penn State in the class of 2004. He switched over to offense and made an immediate impact as a freshman receiver on the 2005 Orange Bowl team that finished No. 3 in the country, catching 37 passes for 691 yards and nine TDs.
When all was said and done, Butler left PSU as the school’s career leader in receptions with 179. He’s currently second on that list, as his record was broken by DaeSean Hamilton (214).
Butler was a third-round draft pick of the Seahawks and caught 57 passes over four NFL seasons.
WR Gregg Garrity
One of the most important catches in Penn State history was made by this former PSU walk-on, who hauled in “The Catch,” diving for a 47-yard TD pass from Todd Blackledge in the 1983 Sugar Bow. The touchdown helped Penn State to a 27-23 win and its first national championship.
Oh, and the catch also landed Garrity a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He went on to play seven years in the NFL, making 82 catches for 1,329 yards and six TDs.
QB Trace McSorley
He was actually a 3-star recruit, but that was as a safety. No one wanted him as a Division I quarterback, except for James Franklin, who offered him a scholarship to Vanderbilt.
McSorley wound up coming to Penn State when Franklin got the job, and the rest is history. He backed up highly rated QB Christian Hackenberg, and everyone wondered what the future of the position would be when McSorley took over as the starter in 2016.
McSorley made himself a Penn State legend by leading the team during its 2016 Big Ten championship season and making huge throws throughout the year. He also became one of the greatest leaders in PSU history.
McSorley was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by Ravens in 2019, and a few weeks ago, he threw his first touchdown pass.
Around the beat
I reached out to some longtime Penn State beat writers to get their picks for lightly recruited guys who kind of came out of nowhere to become good players. These are their picks:
Ben Jones, StateCollege.com
Jordan Norwood: “Local kids dream of playing at Beaver Stadium, and he made it happen and then some. A DaeSean Hamilton before DaeSean Hamilton, he had few offers and was nearly a basketball player. Not the flashiest of the Butler/Williams/Norwood trio, but consistent and tough. Super Bowl winner with a key punt return in that win.”
Rich Scarcella, Reading Eagle
Jordan Norwood: If you’re going to mention Deon Butler, who’s one of my favorites, you have to mention Norwood.
Audrey Snyder, The Athletic
Grant Haley: “The former 3-star prospect from Georgia ended up at his mother’s alma mater in a roundabout way after James Franklin left Vanderbilt. Haley played right away as a freshman, and if not for the scoop and score vs. Ohio State, who knows where this program is.
Greg Pickel, PennLive:
Nick Scott: “Played multiple positions in high school, which led him to be a key special teamer in college, then becoming a starting safety who’s played in 29 games in the NFL in two years as a seventh-round pick. Not sure anyone saw that coming.”
Ryan Snyder, BlueWhite Illustrated
Amani Oruwariye: “James Franklin signed 24 players in his first recruiting class, 10 of whom are now in the NFL. That’s impressive. Oruwariye, who was one of the last additions, ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations. He only started his senior year, but he played 48 games after redshirting and is geting better each week with the Lions.”
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