Drew Hartlaub had another life-changing football decision to make.
So many had come before. Would he keep pursuing his sport at South Western High after blowing out his knee?
Would he risk going to Penn State, his dream school, even though he might never see the field?
Would he stay there, three years later, still with no scholarship and no chance at a starting position?
But a week ago was the biggest of all. The NFL. Everything he had ever worked for. Afternoon turned to evening, the draft ended, and teams began signing free agents. Hartlaub had to make a choice.
He found his father in their family home near Hanover. He quietly announced that he picked the Carolina Panthers and head coach Matt Rhule − a former Penn State walk-on like him − over the Seattle Seahawks.
“My Dad just started crying and gave me a hug. Just said he was proud of me. It just made me think that he had sacrificed so much to get me where I’m at, waking up early to take me to camps as a kid, doing everything to support me. Without him …
“I never could have expected this to happen four or five years ago.”
Hartlaub certainly beat the odds to get this far. He overcame that torn-up knee in high school, the injury that ruined his recruiting, to earn a preferred walk-on spot at Penn State. Two years later, a teammate showed up late for a meeting, giving Hartlaub his first shot on special teams. He never gave it up.
A Penn State Top 10:Greatest Penn State catches: Where does NFL Draft star Jahan Dotson rank?
The next PSU star?He’s a 250-pound sprinter. And a football savior? Get to know Penn State’s Dani Dennis-Sutton
Forget that he never played a meaningful down at his safety position in college. He used his team-best sprinting speed and athleticism to be a lethal “gunner” on coverage teams, an expert lead tackler.
And when NFL scouts watched him run 40 yards Penn State Pro Day in March … and he pulled out a stunning 4.22 seconds … interest ramped. Simply more verification of why he was so good at what he does.
“I think I probably can go to the NFL and be one of the fastest guys right away,” he said. “If I run the way I did on Pro Day … it will be hard for a lot of people to keep up to me.”
Carolina Panthers, Matt Rhule offer best deal
It was a clear choice, in the end. Carolina offered the best money ($6,000 signing bonus) and the most familiarity. His former Penn State roommate, Yetur Gross-Matos, is a defensive end for the team. Teammates and friends Brandon Smith (fourth-round draft pick) and John Lovett (free agent) will be joining him, too.
Plus, if anyone knows what it’s like to start on the bottom rung of Penn State football and work yourself into an NFL career, it would be Rhule. He was a walk-on linebacker under Joe Paterno before working his way through the coaching ranks.
Leading up to the draft, Hartlaub worked out for the Baltimore Ravens and interviewed with the Las Vegas Raiders and was offered by the Seahawks, but “I felt Carolina has more belief in me than anywhere else.”
Which means, in the end, where he has the best shot to actually make a final roster. That, certainly, is not guaranteed. His battle is still uphill, no matter if he just may be the fastest guy in the NFL over 40 yards.
Rookie mini-camp starts this week and Hartlaub said he hopes to stay in Carolina through the middle of June. Preseason camp begins a month later.
“The real work starts now,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve been in this position before. I know it’s going to be difficult.
“Just going to approach this the same way I did at Penn State. Great attitude every day because it’s a blessing to play for an organization like this, whether whether I’m there for a week or there for a year. I’m going to work hard, give everything I have every day. I might not be as good as other players, not be able to do things other players do, but I will work as hard and make the most of my opportunities.”
Here’s a look at the Nittany Lions other free agents who signed on with NFL teams:
Will he help immediately?Demeioun Robinson: 3 things to know about Penn State transfer from Maryland
Ellis Brooks, Green Bay Packers
Ellis Brooks pushed his overall game to the next level this past season and led the Lions in tackles (100).
The senior middle linebacker was an enforcing, physical presence inside, especially during the first half of last season. He was particularly effective against run-oriented opponents like Wisconsin and Iowa. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2021.
He developed into a defensive leader and a notable hard worker, which should help his overall effort sticking with the Packers. His testing numbers at Penn State Pro Day disappointed, though, and probably kept him out of the last rounds of the draft. Most glaring was his 4.77 time in the 40-yard dash.
Derrick Tangelo, Atlanta Falcons
The Duke transfer impressed as the 2021 wore on, especially after fellow defensive tackle and team leader PJ Mustipher was lost to injury.
Derrick Tangelo became the reliable, space-eating presence inside at defensive tackle and flashed with a big play from time to time. He finished with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks and forced a fumble against Illinois.
Penn State got exactly what it was hoping for from the Maryland schoolboy star when he joined on for his senior season.
John Lovett, Carolina Panthers
The graduate transfer from Baylor never really got on track during his senior season at Penn State.
But running back John Lovett will still get an NFL shot with familiar faces in Carolina. The Panthers drafted linebacker Brandon Smith in the fourth round and picked up Hartlaub as a free agent. Pluse, Rhule was Lovett’s head coach at Baylor when the he signed with the Bears in 2017.
Lovett’s brief Penn State career began by being suspended for the first two games of the 2021 season for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. He was a backup in the following six games before starting against Maryland and Michigan.
His busiest rushing games came against Villanova (11 carries, 45 yards) and at Ohio State (13 carries, 20 yards). He gained just 177 yards for the entire season without scoring a touchdown. He added nine receptions for 36 yards.
Eric Wilson, New Orleans Saints
Arguably the most consistent offensive lineman this past season.
Eric Wilson locked down a guard position after transferring in from Harvard. He showed good strength numbers and drill work for NFL scouts during Penn State Pro Day and markets himself as being able to handle any of the three interior line spots.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.