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Penn State

Who is Penn State's best-ever linebacker?

| Thursday, July 19, 2018, 10:06 a.m.
Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington plays against Illinois on Oct. 31, 1998, at Beaver Stadium.
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Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington plays against Illinois on Oct. 31, 1998, at Beaver Stadium.

It’s finally time to determine the top tacklers in “Linebacker U” lore.

We’ve made it to Day 10 of our summer series on the top-10 all-time Penn State players at each position. To recap so far: We started off with running backs, followed by defensive tackles, defensive backs, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers/punters, defensive ends, quarterbacks and offensive linemen.

As a reminder, we organized a group of 12 experts — six former players, six media members — to vote on the top-10 all-time players each position. Each day we’ve released a new position, and if you think we missed something, you can vote in our fan poll, which is on its final day. The results will be released July 21.

Here are Penn State’s top-10 linebackers based on the opinion of our 12-person panel:

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10. Greg Buttle, 1973-1975

Best ranking/worst: No. 5/unranked

Career stats: 343 tackles

Buttle, for the better part of three decades, was Penn State’s all-time leading tackler. His 343 stops were passed by Paul Posluszny. A year later, Dan Connor took the top spot. Still, Buttle’s legacy shouldn’t be forgotten. A consensus All-American in 1975, the New Jersey native racked up 165 tackles as a junior, the most ever by a Nittany Lion. The fact that Buttle is all the way down at No. 10 is indicative of Penn State’s absurd strength at linebacker. He would be No. 1 at almost every other Power 5 program.

•••

9. NaVorro Bowman, 2007-2009

Best ranking/worst: No. 2/unranked

Career stats: 215 tackles, 36 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 3 INTs

Bowman told ESPN.com in 2009 that, “The object of becoming a good defensive player is really just taking care of your responsibility and finding the ball. That’s what I do.” It’s what Bowman did exceptionally well in 2008 and 2009. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection racked up 106 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a redshirt sophomore in the absence of the injured Sean Lee. Bowman followed that stellar season up with 93 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, three sacks and a pick-six in 2009. He left Penn State early and has been named first-team All-Pro four times.

•••

8. Dennis Onkotz, 1967-1969

Best ranking/worst: No. 3/unranked

Career stats: 287 tackles, 11 interceptions

Onkotz, along with Jack Ham, helped established Penn State as “Linebacker U.” Onkotz was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995, and the two-time consensus All-American’s 287 tackles rank eighth all-time now; upon graduation, Onkotz was the program record-holder. His 11 interceptions are most ever by a Nittany Lion linebacker, and his three pick-sixes are tied with Darren Perry for most in Penn State history. And oddly enough, Onkotz was a punt returner — a good one, too. His 13.2 yards per return average ranks eighth all-time, ahead of O.J. McDuffie and just behind Jimmy Cefalo.

•••

T-6. Dan Connor, 2004-2007

Best ranking/worst: No. 4/unranked

Career stats: 419 tackles, 35 tackles for loss, 14 sacks

Connor — while generally not held in the same regard as Jack Ham and LaVar Arrington — was the most productive linebacker in program history, at least from a numbers perspective. He is the program’s all-time leading tackler, with a 47-stop lead over Posluszny, his former teammate. A two-time All-American, Connor won the Bednarik Award in 2007. The Strath Haven product tallied 85 tackles as a freshman, 76 as a sophomore, 113 as a junior and 145 as a senior — the second-most ever in a season. No Penn State linebacker put together the kind of four-year career Connor did. And no one has that all-time record, either.

•••

T-6. Brandon Short, 1996-1999

Best ranking/worst: No. 3/unranked

Career stats: 271 tackles, 51 tackles for loss

A four-year starter who began his career as a defensive end, Short lived in opponents’ backfields. His 51 tackles for loss ranks second in program history, 10 more than the next linebacker (Shane Conlan). Short and LaVar Arrington were the first teammates to be named finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the country’s best linebacker. Arrington won the award in 1999, but any other year, Short might have taken home the hardware. He led Penn State with 103 tackles and added 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and a blocked kick.

•••

5. Sean Lee, 2005-2007, 2009

Best ranking/worst: No. 3/unranked

Career stats: 325 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks

Lee was labeled by Joe Paterno as “one of the best kids” he ever coached — and he’s one of the best linebackers to ever take the field at Beaver Stadium. Lee’s 325 tackles rank fourth all-time; the numbers are there. But it was Lee’s perseverance that endeared him to Penn State fans. The Pittsburgh native tore the ACL in his right knee before his senior year, was named captain and guided the defense from the sidelines. He returned in 2009 and recorded 86 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. In the NFL, Lee has continued to face injury issues, tearing his ACL again in 2014. But Lee, a two-time Pro-Bowler, has punished offenses whenever available — just like he did at Penn State.

•••

4. Jack Ham, 1968-1970 (2 first-place votes)

Best ranking/worst: No. 1/unranked

Career stats: 251 tackles, 4 blocked punts

Ham is the only Penn State product to be enshrined in both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. As a three-year starter in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions accumulated a 29-3 record. And as a senior, Ham earned All-American and co-captain honors while recording 91 tackles and four interceptions. And that was all before a legendary pro career. In 12 years with the Steelers, Ham was an eight-time Pro-Bowler, six-time All-Pro and four-time Super Bowl champion and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 2010, NFL Films ranked Ham as the 60th-best player in the league’s history. Quite a resume.

3. Shane Conlan, 1983-1986 (3 first-place votes)

Best ranking/worst: No. 1/unranked

Career stats: 274 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 16 sacks

Conlan almost didn’t receive a scholarship offer coming out of high school. “There was nobody recruiting me, except for Penn State,” the New York native said in his College Football Hall of Fame induction speech in 2014. “I got turned down by Syracuse, Ohio State, they said no. But thanks to Tom (Bradley). … He took a gamble, and it paid off.” The gamble — Bradley convincing Paterno to offer Conlan a scholarship — paid off for both parties. Conlan, a two-time first-team All-American, was the heartbeat of Penn State’s national-title winning defense in 1982. He picked off Vinny Testaverde twice in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and returned the second interception to Miami’s 5-yard line, setting up D.J. Dozier’s game-winning touchdown. Conlan received three first-place votes with reason.

•••

2. Paul Posluszny, 2003-2006 (1 first-place vote)

Best ranking/worst: No. 1/No. 5

Career stats: 372 tackles, 34 tackles for loss

Not Conlan. Not LaVar. Not even himself. No, Jack Ham called Posluszny the “best-ever” linebacker at Penn State, and he might have a point. Joining former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, Posluszny is just the second two-time winner of the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player. The two-time first-team All-American also won the Butkus Award in 2005, given to the country’s top linebacker. Posluszny was the first Nittany Lion to lead his team in tackles three straight seasons. He took over Greg Buttle’s all-time tackle record, only to be passed a year later by teammate Dan Connor. And of course, Poz’s playing days didn’t end in Happy Valley, forging an 11-year career in the NFL and becoming the Jacksonville Jaguars’ all-time leading tackler before retiring in March.

•••

1. LaVar Arrington, 1997-1999 (6 first-place votes)

Best ranking/worst: No. 1/No. 7

Career stats: 39 tackles for loss, 19 sacks

Arrington narrowly edged Posluszny for the No. 1 spot, and really, voters couldn’t go wrong with any of these top four options. But Arrington had that “it factor,” the innate ability to change the course of a game. Look no further than the “LaVar Leap,” one of the craziest plays in Big Ten history. Look no further than 20 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two fumble recoveries, two blocked kicks, and one interception in 1999. The two-time All-American won the Butkus, Bednarik and Lambert awards that season and finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

In the comments section of our panel survey, former teammate Joe Nastasi called Arrington “the single most destructive defensive player I have ever been around,” and likened the linebacker to Giants legend Lawrence Taylor. It’s hard not to see the comparison.

Top LB honorable mention: Michael Mauti, 2008, 2010-2012; Andre Collins, 1986-1989

Voters in our panel: (Players) Keith Conlin, 1992-1995; Bill Contz, 1980-1982; Stephon Morris, 2009-2012; Joe Nastasi, 1995-1998; A.Q. Shipley, 2005-2008; Adam Taliaferro, 2000; (Media) Nate Bauer, Blue White Illustrated; Matt Brown, The Athletic; Cory Giger, The Altoona Mirror; John McGonigal, Centre Daily Times; Josh Moyer, Centre Daily Times; Mark Wogenrich, Allentown Morning Call

How the voting was done: Each voter was given an online survey, with 20-50 players at each position, to rank 1-10. If a player was not listed, voters were given the option for a write-in. First-place votes gave players 10 points, second-place votes gave them 9, etc. We then added all the point totals together to find our top 10; honorable mentions have received at least 10 total points.

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©2018 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

Visit the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) at www.centredaily.com

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