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Penn State's 'Final Five' have seen a lot in five football seasons

The five fifth-year seniors, members of former coach Bill O'Brien's final recruiting class in 2013, has seen their share of ups and downs but leave Penn State after this season knowing the program is doing well.

Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is one of five players remaining from the 2013 recruiting class that endured NCAA sanctions.
Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is one of five players remaining from the 2013 recruiting class that endured NCAA sanctions.Read moreCARLOS OSORIO / AP

With apologies to the 2016 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, these guys are the Final Five – the five players who remain from Bill O'Brien's last recruiting class that signed on at Penn State in 2013 after crippling NCAA sanctions threatened to tear the heart out of the program.

It has been an up-and-down experience for the group – guard Brendan Mahon, defensive tackles Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, and offensive tackle Andrew Nelson – but they all go into the senior day game Saturday against Nebraska knowing that things are so much better for the program than when they arrived.

"Committing to this program, people thought that Penn State would never be Penn State again," Mahon, who has 38 career starts, said this week. "Five years later, I'm sitting here and we just won a Big Ten championship and played in the Rose Bowl and we're going to another great bowl this year.

"I couldn't be prouder of the guys in the locker room, the coaching staff and everyone that's been a part of this because five years ago when we committed to this, we didn't know if this was going to happen. We committed here because we knew it could happen, and now that it's finally happened  it's a really special thing."

Mahon committed to the Nittany Lions four months before the NCAA handed down its punishment in July 2012 for the role it perceived the football program to have had in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

By contrast, Cothren committed four months after the sanctions had been assessed. He said the thoughts of reduced scholarships and the possibility of no bowl games did not deter him, and now he's happy he made what he felt was the right decision for him.

"Penn State was going through some hard times when we came in," the Alabama native said. "It was right after the sanctions when we arrived on campus. I think we've done everything we can to further Penn State, push it into more of a positive light and get it back to where we all know it should be in the eyes of the nation, in regards to football.

"I think we've done a good job of that. We all wanted big things and we were disappointed in a couple of games [this season], but we're still having a great season and we're still trying to finish out on top and do this thing right."

All five players from the signing class redshirted in 2013, the second year in which Penn State was ineligible to go to a bowl game. But a little more than two weeks into the 2014 season, the NCAA rescinded the bowl ban, and this postseason will mark the Lions' fourth bowl game in a row.

In addition to the five signees from O'Brien's final class, other fifth-year seniors include reserve linebacker Brandon Smith and backup tight end Tom Pancoast, both of whom originally walked on to the team; kicker Tyler Davis, who transferred from Bradley and switched sports from soccer to football; and Josh McPhearson, an outstanding special-teams player who transferred from Nassau Community College.

Hamilton, who tops the Nittany Lions in receiving yardage and whose 48 career starts are most on the team among active players, said he hasn't had the time to sit back and think about how much the program has progressed since he arrived on campus, but he admitted, "It feels pretty good."

"Seeing basically where we used to be to where we are now, that's obviously noticeable," he said. "We're light years ahead of what we used to be. It's really cool to see how much this team has grown, how much talent we're bringing in, how much depth we have at every single position, how good guys are going to be in the future."

It's been a long road, indeed.

"There's absolutely no disappointment," Mahon said.

By The Numbers


Big Ten teams that a James Franklin-coached Penn State team had not played before Saturday. Nebraska is the last.


Penn State seniors to be introduced prior to the game.


Consecutive extra points for Nittany Lions kicker Tyler Davis.

Three Things to Watch

The Penn State rushing attack needs a shot in the arm and the Nebraska defense may help. The Cornhuskers allowed 409 yards on the ground last week vs. Minnesota.

In related news, the Cornhuskers rank among the worst teams in the country in sacks (1.2 per game) and tackles for losses (3.6 per game), another possible aid for a Lions team that is among the worst in sacks allowed and being tackled for losses.

A Twitter photo of Ryan Bates in pads at Wednesday's practice led to speculation that Penn State's offensive left tackle from Archbishop Wood High School could play Saturday, but James Franklin doesn't comment on injuries, so …