The 2004 season was one of the low points, on the field, in the history of the Penn State football program.
It wasn’t just that Penn State went 4-7 and missed a bowl game for the fourth time in five seasons, culminating the worst five-year stretch for the program since the 1930s. The Nittany Lions scored seven points or less in five of the seven losses, including an infamous 6-4 defeat against Iowa.
They needed to fix the offense and to change the perception of a program in decline. When Derrick Williams, one of the top recruits in America, chose Penn State, it was a landmark moment for the 2005 recruiting class and the future of the program.
Williams never became a Heisman Trophy-type player, but adding him and Justin King, another 5-star prospect, proved Penn State could still compete for elite talent.
The Nittany Lions returned a ton of experience in 2005, but Williams, King and two other freshmen, Deon Butler (a redshirt from the 2004 class) and Jordan Norwood, helped Michael Robinson transform the offense en route to an 11-1 season and No. 3 final ranking.
King played both ways as a freshman and eventually settled in as the team’s top cornerback. Williams, Butler and Norwood anchored the wide receiver corps for years. Eventually, Darryl Clark became one of the program’s most successful quarterbacks and Sean Lee one of the best linebackers from a place known from producing great players at the position.
Penn State’s 2005 recruiting class
247Sports composite rank: No. 23 (No. 4 in the Big Ten)
5-year record: 51-13, two Big Ten co-championships (2005, 2008)
Bowl games: 2005 (won Orange Bowl); 2006 (won Outback Bowl); 2007 (won Alamo Bowl); 2008 (lost Rose Bowl); 2009 (won Capital One Bowl)
All-America honors: Derrick Williams (2008, second team)
All-Big Ten honors: Darryl Clark (2008, 2009); Kevin Kelly (2008); Justin King (2006, 2007); Dennis Landolt (2009); Sean Lee (2007, 2009); Anthony Scirrotto (2008); Derrick Williams (2008)
NFL draft picks: Justin King (2008, fourth round); Derrick Williams (2009, third round); Sean Lee (2010, second round)
Derrick Williams, WR, Greenbelt, Md.
Position: No. 2 wide receiver
State: No. 1 in Maryland
National: No. 4
Williams was the No. 1 player in America, according to Rivals. His father had worked at Maryland, which was far more successful than Penn State from 2002-04 and just a few miles from home. The symbolic victory of landing such a highly rated player was a big deal for a fading program.
He made an immediate impact, including one of the biggest plays of the 2005 season in a come-from-behind win against Northwestern and the first touchdown in a 17-10 win against Ohio State.
After the huge play against Northwestern, Williams’ biggest highlights the rest of his career were in the return game. He returned five kicks for touchdowns. Otherwise, he settled in as a solid receiver and a creative chess piece for Penn State, lining up out wide, in the slot, at tailback and as a Wildcat quarterback.
Head of the class
Sean Lee, LB, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Position: No. 49 outside linebacker
State: No. 21 in Pennsylvania
National: No. 622
Lee played a little as a freshmen and then became a three-year starter. He missed 2008 because of a knee injury but returned for his fifth season in 2009 and finished fourth in program history in tackles.
He became the highest pick in an NFL draft from the 2005 recruiting class, and Lee is going to have the best NFL career. There were 20 players ranked ahead of him from his state and 48 at his position as a senior in high school. None of those players are still playing in the NFL, and he just made the Pro Bowl for a second straight season.
Jerome Hayes, LB, Bayonne, N.J.
Position: No. 10 outside linebacker
State: No. 3 in New Jersey
National: No. 82
Hayes’ time at Penn State was derailed by injuries. He missed five games in 2006, and then moved to defensive end. His 2007 season was cut short by a torn ACL, and then he tore the ACL in his other knee in his first career start in 2008.
He had 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks in seven games before the first knee injury in 2007, and showed flashes of a potential impact player. Hayes made it through his final season in 2009, finishing with 18 tackles, a sack and three kickoff returns for 74 yards when teams kicked away from Chaz Powell.
Jordan Norwood, WR, State College, Pa.
Norwood was hardly hidden from Penn State fans. His father, Brian, was an assistant coach for Penn State and Jordan played less than two miles from Beaver Stadium at State College High School. He did not have many offers, but made an immediate impact in 2005 as a true freshman.
He finished his career fourth in receptions and third in receiving yards in school history, though Norwood is now sixth in both categories. From lightly recruited to a solid college player, it should be a surprise that Norwood went from undrafted to having the longest NFL career of any offensive player in the 2005 class.
Norwood became a Super Bowl champion last year with Denver, and had the longest punt return in Super Bowl history. He is a free agent this offseason.
This class ended up being a little top-heavy, but there were several significant contributors. Beyond Lee, Clark, Williams and Norwood, Kelly became the program’s all-time leading scorer and one of its best kickers.
Dennis Landolt became a three-year starter on the offensive line. Scirrotto and Lydell Sargeant became starters in the secondary. Mickey Shuler split time at tight end and had 27 catches in his final three seasons. Chris Baker started some games as a junior before he was kicked off the team and expelled from school.
In a class of 19 signees, that’s a lot of impact players. This class didn’t offer a lot of depth, but that came from the next class, which was the best this century for the Nittany Lions.
This class produced the second-most wins in a five-year span in school history, topped only by the 53 wins from 1971-75. It helped change the national perception of the program in the mid-2000s, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.