Donovan Smith, the most experienced player on the young Penn State offensive line for much of the 2014 season, announced Monday he has decided to enter the NFL draft.

The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Smith, a redshirt junior who started 31 games at left tackle over the last three seasons, will forego his final season of eligibility.

In a release issued by Penn State athletic communications, Smith said "it seems like it was yesterday" that he sat down with former coach Joe Paterno to discuss his plans after high school in Owings Mills, Md.

"I promised him and my family that I would get my degree," Smith said. "After achieving one of my life goals of receiving a degree from (Penn State), I feel it's time to continue the pursuit of my dream of becoming an NFL player. The past four years have been a physical and emotional roller coaster but have ultimately made me a better man."

Smith went on to thank his family, teammates, coaches and fans "for the best four years of my life. I am eternally grateful to you all."

Smith graduated in December with a degree in criminology.

"We want to thank Donovan and wish him all the best at the next level," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "We appreciate his contributions to the program and his dedication to earning his degree this semester, doing so in 3 ½ years."

Smith was the only returning 2013 starter on the offensive line at the beginning of the season. He missed games against Maryland and Indiana with an undisclosed injury. He started the last three games of the year alongside Miles Dieffenbach, another veteran starter who missed much of the season recovering from knee surgery.

However, the inexperience of the line as a whole led to struggles on offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions finished last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing offense and total offense.

Penn State next year returns three players – center Angelo Mangiro, guard Brian Gaia and tackle Andrew Nelson – from the unit that started in the Pinstripe Bowl. Three other underclassmen – center Wendy Laurent and guards Brendan Mahon and Derek Dowrey – started games this season.

The Lions will welcome several linemen who redshirted during the current season as well as two tackles – Paris Palmer and Sterling Jenkins – who signed early and will enroll at the university next month.

--Joe Juliano