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Penn State's NFL draft hopefuls persevere during uncertain times

DEREK LEVARSE
(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Yetur Gross-Matos.

Yetur Gross-Matos and KJ Hamler have been dreaming of this week for years. But it wasn’t long enough to imagine this scenario.

Penn State’s top two draft-eligible prospects won’t be able to hang out in a glitzy green room at the NFL draft like Saquon Barkley did in 2018. Nor will they be able to host large parties with friends as Miles Sanders and Connor McGovern did last spring.

What was supposed to be an over-the-top NFL draft weekend in Las Vegas — complete with boats ferrying players out to a stage built on the water of the iconic Bellagio fountains — is now being held in isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As it is, underclassmen Gross-Matos and Hamler, as well as a crop of successful Penn State seniors, will have to celebrate with just their closest family with every pick being announced remotely.

It will be different, to be sure. But it will still be memorable.

“You think back to sitting in that living room (during recruiting), and talking to the parents and finding out what their dreams were, and finding out what their goals were, and then working really hard over three, four or five years to help them achieve that,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said this week in an appearance on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live.”

“So for me, you know, you kind of feel like a father in some ways. You know, I remember sitting in the green room with Saquon when he gets drafted No. 2 overall, and just the whole journey kind of flashes before your eyes.”

DE Yetur Gross-Matos: Penn State’s top pass rusher over the past two seasons has a chance to become the program’s first defensive player to be picked in the first round in a decade. Fellow defensive lineman Jared Odrick was the last to earn that distinction back in 2010.

While not a lock to be drafted on Thursday, most projections have him going off the board late in the first round.

“I think with Yetur, his best football is ahead of him,” Franklin said. “He is still a young football player. He’s a guy that, as a freshman, we were trying to decide whether to redshirt him or not. He was just too big, too strong, too physical. Went on to three very productive years for us.

“What I’ve been telling all the people I’ve talked to is his best football is ahead of him. He’s a guy that didn’t get to run at the combine. I think he would’ve run a good time as well. He’s got a very bright future.”

K.J. Hamler

WR KJ Hamler: The COVID-19 outbreak shut things down across the country after the combine but less than a week before Penn State was set to hold its pro day.

Like Gross-Matos, Hamler didn’t get to showcase his speed at the combine as the shifty wideout was recovering from an injury and was looking to run for scouts in Happy Valley in March instead.

It didn’t happen.

“Magnified for us, our pro day was a little later, so our guys didn’t have pro day,” Franklin said. “KJ didn’t run at the combine. I think he would’ve ran a low-4.3 or better than that, which I think would’ve impacted maybe how people are talking about him right now. Everybody is dealing with it to a degree, but I’m a huge KJ fan, as well as the rest of our guys. We have a number of guys we think are going to go fairly high and have an opportunity to make a team and make an impact.”

While Gross-Matos declared early for the draft, Hamler had a tougher decision to make because of a very deep group of receiver prospects in the draft class.

Hamler ultimately chose to go pro and is projected to be selected on Friday, when the second and third rounds are held.

Measuring in at just under 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds means Hamler won’t be at the very top of team’s receiver boards.

“I knew it was a big wide receiver draft class,” Hamler said. “But that just says I’m not scared of competition. I’ve been competing my whole life. I’ve been an underdog my whole life. So proving people wrong is something I look forward to be doing.

“NFL teams will be for sure getting a playmaker. … I think my heart is 6-5 while I’m in a 5-9 frame.”

CB John Reid: After Hamler, it may take awhile for the next Lions alum to be selected, with the steady Reid perhaps the next on the list on Saturday’s final day as a projected fifth or sixth rounder.

At 5-foot-10, his size and length aren’t ideal for an NFL corner, but he tested well at the combine, leading the way with the top short shuttle time.

A year lost to a torn ACL in college will also likely affect his draft stock, but Reid rebounded to turn in a strong senior season in 2019 and is lauded for the mental part of his game and his film study.

DL Robert Windsor: Windsor made some of the biggest improvements in a five-year span at Penn State, turning into the Lions’ top defensive tackle as a senior last fall. In particular, he dominated a game at Iowa to help the Lions secure a key road win.

Projects as a sixth or seventh rounder.

LB Cam Brown: Brown had a similar improvement over time as Windsor, but he is a year younger because he was forced into action as a true freshman when Penn State’s linebackers were devastated by injuries.

By 2019, Brown was a difference-maker for the defense and his big frame could help him land in a draft slot toward the end if not a priority free agent.