Dating back to 1940, there have been 37 Nittany Lions selected in the first round of the NFL draft. None of them have been defensive backs. But corner Amani Oruwariye might end that drought in April.
Oruwariye — a 6-foot-1, 203-pound ballhawk — is a projected early-round selection in the 2019 NFL draft. Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus’ senior analyst, listed the fifth-year senior as the No. 4 corner and No. 27 overall prospect in the site’s post-Week 8 rankings. In PFF’s latest mock draft, Palazzolo sent Oruwariye to the Houston Texans at No. 21 overall, adding that “the cornerback class is wide open at this point, but Oruwariye should be in the conversation come April.”
Meanwhile, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler and WalterFootball.com both peg Oruwariye as a second- or third-round pick. The last Penn State defensive back to go in the second round? Safety Bryan Scott in 2003.
So, yeah, it’s been a while since a Nittany Lion DB has been that highly-regarded. But Oruwariye has looked and played the part in 2018, ranking second in the Big Ten and 10th in the country with 14 passes defended. And he believes his game translates at the next level.
“They’re transforming their secondaries into guys who are longer, bigger corners. And I definitely think I fit that category. I feel like I bring that to the table,” Oruwariye said Wednesday. “I’m a guy who can attack the ball in the air and make plays. Just a physical presence. Also a guy who’s a student of the game, knows plays are going to happen before they happen. That’s what I try to bring, and I think that’ll help in the NFL.”
Experts, scouts and coaches tend to agree.
Brugler, who previously worked at NFL Draft Scout and CBS Sports, wrote that the first thing he noticed on tape was Oruwariye’s “NFL frame and length, certainly passing the eye test.” Brugler continued: “He has long arms and tracks the football well downfield with natural ball skills to make impressive plays.”
That’s been Oruwariye’s calling card for two years. Without logging a start in 2017, the Tampa native led the Nittany Lions in interceptions with four. This year as a full-time starter, he has three picks, including a game-clinching, leaping grab in overtime against Appalachian State.
But Oruwariye is more than an INT machine. Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith complimented the corner’s man-to-man responsibilities a few weeks ago, noting that the senior goes up against the opponent’s top receiver week in, week out. And for the most part, he’s held up.
Sure, there have been a few miscues. The blown coverage against Michigan State’s Felton Davis III, allowing a game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining back on Oct. 13 stands out. But Oruwariye learned from that experience and bounced back. Through eight weeks, Oruwariye saw 54 targets, breaking up eight passes and intercepting two more, per PFF.
“He has the toughest challenge on our defense each week,” Smith said days before the Iowa game. “He can’t take a play off, and he’s played a lot of snaps for us and done a fantastic job. For him translating to the NFL, there are a lot of pros.”
Oruwariye’s only cons, really, would be his speed and tackling. On film it’s obvious the corner’s ability to close out in open space isn’t at the same level as other elite, young corners like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, who went No. 4 overall in last year’s draft. And Oruwariye recognizes that he can get better in the run game, too, saying, “At my size, I need to be more of a presence.”
But with 13 cornerbacks selected in the first round in the last three years — more than any other position — it’s clear the NFL craves lengthy corners with potential. The shortest corner picked in the first two rounds of last year’s draft was 5-foot-10, and the average weight was 194 pounds.
Oruwariye fits the mold, putting him in that first-round range.
“No. 21 could probably line up for us right now,” an NFC East scout told The Athletic. “Should be one of the few rookie corners ready for NFL snaps early on.”
Added head coach James Franklin: “He’s got a very bright future.”