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Penn State's pro-day underclassmen believe they're ready for NFL

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State tight end Jesse James was advised to return his senior year. The NFL Draft Advisory Board told defensive end Deion Barnes he’d likely be a fifth-round pick.

Those projections didn’t deter either underclassman. They said on Thursday afternoon – the first time they spoke publicly since their decisions – they simply felt they were ready. It didn’t matter what the board said.

“No, I don’t regret it at all,” Barnes said, when asked if he’d reconsider had he known he wouldn’t receive an invitation to the NFL combine. “It wasn’t a quick decision.”

Said James: “I just felt prepared. I sent my thing into the advisory board and they told me to go back to school, but I had confidence in myself that I would succeed and that I would do good throughout this process.”

Left tackle Donovan Smith also declared early – and received criticism from at least one scout for doing so – but left before speaking with the media. It’s the first time, at least in the modern era, that three junior PSU starters declared early for the NFL draft.

Those decisions led to plenty of question marks and second-guessing. But Barnes and James – who’ve seen four head-coaching changes, including the interims, in the last four years -- dispelled any notion they left because of program differences or scheme disagreements. Ultimately, they said, it came down to the same question: Why stay if you feel ready now?

“It doesn’t matter what other people say,” James said. “It’s all about how you feel about yourself. And I feel prepared.”

Barnes and James looked prepared during Thursday’s pro day, where 30 of 32 teams attended. (Seattle and Detroit were the only no-shows.) James – who came in at 6-foot-7.1 inches and 262 pounds – pumped his arms and said he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-second range. (He ran a 4.83 at the combine.) That 40 time would’ve tied him for second-best at the NFL combine, alongside Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman and South Alabama’s Wes Saxton.

Barnes might have turned more heads, as this was the first time scouts watched him perform in shorts. Several alumni and assistants hooted and hollered as Barnes performed 31 reps during the bench press. That would’ve been second-best among defensive ends at the combine, behind only Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr., who did 32.

Barnes said he’s not setting his sights on a particular round; he just wants to get a shot to play football. James? He’s a bit more ambitious. He’s currently ranked as Mel Kiper Jr.'s eighth-best tight end, but James wants to be the first TE off the board.

The pair won’t find out where they go until April 30-May 2, when the draft takes place in Chicago. Until then, they’ll both continue moving on from Penn State – because, they insisted, it’s time. They’re ready.

“If I felt I wasn’t prepared for the next level,” James said, “I would’ve stayed.”

Added Barnes: “I felt like I was physically, mentally ready. I felt like it was that time.”