KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Standing on a high school football field surrounded by palm trees, practicing in 80-degree weather days after Christmas, Amani Oruwariye was on home turf.
“It feels great,” the Penn State cornerback said Friday afternoon following a Penn State Citrus Bowl practice at Celebration High School.
Oruwariye is preparing for his final college game less than 80 miles east of Gaither (Tampa, Fla.) High School, where he rose to prominence as a recruit in the 2014 class. The fifth-year senior evolved into a defensive catalyst for Penn State, which finishes its season vs. Kentucky on New Year’s Day at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
His PSU journey ends with a homecoming of sorts.
“It gives a lot of my family that never got to see me at Penn State a chance to come see me play,” he said.
Oruwariye estimates he’s received nearly 30 ticket requests. It sounds as though his teammates have come through to provide an assist.
“Guys I gave tickets to through the years (for) Pennsylvania games or New Jersey games, they’re helping me out for the bowl game,” he said.
Considered the best bet to be selected early in the 2019 NFL Draft among Nittany Lions players, Oruwariuye has appeared in 47 games since redshirting as a freshman. In high school, he initially pledged to Penn State coach James Franklin at Vanderbilt but ultimately followed him to Happy Valley following a January 2014 coaching change.
Oruwariye earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017 after leading the Nittany Lions with four interceptions despite never starting a contest, then stepped into a starting role this fall and emerged as a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (college football’s best defensive back).
Oruwariye, who graduated with his degree in telecommunications last December, totaled a career-high 49 tackles and 15 pass breakups during the regular season. His three interceptions were headlined by a game-winning snag that ended an overtime battle vs. Appalachian State in the opener, and he earned a first-team all-conference nod.
“Amani had an outstanding season,” Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said. “I thought he was well-deserving to be first-team All-Big Ten. Obviously, he helped his draft stock.”
With one contest remaining in a Nittany Lions uniform, Oruwariye’s NFL outlook has become a popular topic of conversation.
“Coming into the season, they were saying he was probably a late-round draft pick. I would imagine he’s moved up,” Smith said. “Some people have him going late in the first round or as late as the third round. He’s had a great season. He’s been a great leader, a great teammate in the locker room, he’s been a great guy for our room as cornerbacks. He’s worked really hard and he’s reaping the rewards of that hard work.”
CBS Sports ranks Oruwariye as the No. 39 overall player in the 2019 NFL Draft, which occurs in April. He is the No. 4 cornerback in those rankings, which will undoubtedly fluctuate after postseason action and prospect showcase events such as the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.
That current ranking places him right on the edge of the draft’s first round, which features 32 selections. Saquon Barkley, drafted second overall by the New York Giants in 2018, is the lone first-round pick out of Penn State since Franklin arrived, and no Nittany Lions cornerback has ever been selected during the first round.
“We haven’t had a first-rounder,” Smith said. “God willing, obviously it would be a blessing for Amani and his family. It would be a blessing for us as Penn State. We’re trying to build DB nation here. We’ve got seven or eight guys in the league right now that we’ve coached over the last five years. This thing is growing and growing fast. We’re trying to get the best guys in and develop those guys. Amani would be a huge step for the program.”
Oruwariye believes his final collegiate campaign has set the stage for NFL success.
“I think I developed a lot,” he said. “My approach to practice and games has been professional. (I’m) watching a lot more film and being very particular with my technique — every little movement. … Creating championship habits that will carry over to the NFL.”
Penn State’s entire starting defensive secondary in 2017 earned a shot on NFL rosters this year after departing campus. Oruwariye explained he’s maintained contact with those former teammates, along with Barkley, and that’s helped him anticipate what awaits when he makes a leap to the next level.
So how does he handle the speculation of potential first-round draft status, a distinction that comes with life-changing financial gains?
“I hear the noise and stuff like that, but I usually try to push it aside and just focus on the task at hand,” Oruwariye said. “But yeah, that would be a huge accomplishment. That’d be really cool for me and my family, and hopefully that can happen for me in the future.”
A Citrus Bowl matchup vs. Kentucky presents him with another opportunity to make sure NFL scouts don’t overlook the Nittany Lions veteran.