Right when the 2017 draft ended last April, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki were already high up in the early rankings for 2018.
What no one would have predicted — even a few months ago — is who the next Penn State player selected would be.
That would be senior safety Troy Apke, who was the first of four Nittany Lions drafted Saturday on the third and final day of the event.
Apke went in the fourth round (109th overall) to the Washington Redskins and was followed by receiver DaeSean Hamilton just four picks later to the Denver Broncos (No. 113). Safety Marcus Allen landed in the fifth round with the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 148) and cornerback Christian Campbell closed things out by going to the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth (No. 182).
Penn State finished the weekend with six draft picks — the school’s most since 2010 — and tied for fifth in the country behind Alabama’s 12 and seven apiece for LSU, N.C. State and Ohio State.
As it turned out, Apke’s performance at the NFL combine was as impressive as those of teammates Barkley (No. 2 overall, New York Giants) and Gesicki (No. 42, Miami Dolphins).
The one-time track star at Mt. Lebanon High School outside of Pittsburgh recorded a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash, the fourth-fastest time of anyone at the event.
“My speed will help with everything,” Apke told reporters in the nation’s capital. “I’m going to make a name for myself on special teams first and then after that, just make my way into playing safety there.”
Apke didn’t start at Penn State until his senior year this fall but closed out his career by playing his best football in the second half of the season.
“We couldn’t be happier for Troy to hear his named called during the NFL draft,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He was a guy who contributed for us on special teams early in his career, but really took advantage of his opportunities when they came around on defense. As you saw at the NFL combine, he has tremendous speed and agility, and we believe he will be a great contributor for the Redskins.”
If Apke was the Lions’ biggest riser in this draft class, Hamilton wasn’t far behind.
After finishing his career as Penn State’s all-time receptions leader, Hamilton initially missed out on an invitation to the prestigious Senior Bowl. But his week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game impressed so much, that he ultimately got to play in both showcases, where he caught the eye of some very big names.
“We were very impressed by DaeSean Hamilton at the Senior Bowl and are glad to take him in the fourth round,” wrote John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who now serves as Broncos general manager, on Twitter. “A very solid and versatile wide receiver from Penn State who does a tremendous job in all aspects of his game.”
A top-notch possession receiver, the biggest question around Hamilton was his speed. But a better-than-expected showing at Penn State’s pro day in March helped alleviate some of those concerns.
Not that it made the weekend wait any easier.
“The call (from the Broncos) took a lot of weight off of my shoulders,” Hamilton told Denver media. “I was filled with a lot of emotion and really excited for it. Now, knowing that I’m going to a great organization like the Broncos, I want to prove to them that they picked the right person.”
Hamilton wasn’t the only four-year starter to get the call on Saturday.
Allen ended up with the exact team he was hoping for when the Steelers selected the hard-hitting saftety.
“Man, I’m coming home,” Allen said on a conference call. “I’m coming home. It’s all tears of joy right now. This is a perfect situation. This is my home. This is my hometown. My grandmother is there. My grandfather is there, my whole family. I’m so excited.”
Allen may have grown up and played his high school ball in Maryland, but his father is from the Pittsburgh area and he spent summers there as a kid.
In Pittsburgh, Allen will rejoin former teammates Jesse James and Malik Golden and be coached by long-time Penn State mainstay Tom Bradley, who became the Steelers defensive backs coach this winter.
“Marcus was a four-year starter for us and was one of our leaders in the secondary for much of his career,” Franklin said. “He will be a great addition for the Steelers with the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the locker room and field each day.”
The Lions secondary got more good news in the sixth round.
Campbell was particularly excited to have landed with the Cardinals, where he’ll have a chance to learn from All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson, one of his favorite players.
Penn State just missed having all four starters from the defensive backfield drafted as cornerback Grant Haley will have to go the free agent route. He wrote on social media that he will be joining Barkley with the New York Giants.
A pair of close friends and New Jersey natives — linebacker Jason Cabinda and wideout Saeed Blacknall — both announced that they were signing with the Oakland Raiders.
Penn State confirmed all three signings as well as announcing that offensive lineman Brendan Mahon would sign with the Carolina Panthers, defensive linemen Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren would join the Minnesota Vikings and Steelers, respectively, and kicker Tyler Davis would head to the Buffalo Bills.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse