It doesn’t take much digging for Penn State fans to find a walk-on who found a way to make an impact at linebacker position.
Over the last two seasons, Brandon Smith had been one of if not the most consistent member of the linebacking corps.
Before him, there was Josh Hull.
Hull was a walk-on who became a starter, then an Academic All-American, and eventually an NFL player.
Now, the Nittany Lions are faced with questions at the linebacker position and yet again they may find the answer to those questions lie with a walk-on.
One name that has repeatedly come up at both Big Ten and Penn State Media Day was that of redshirt junior Jan Johnson.
Johnson, who forewent scholarship offers from some of the nation’s elite wrestling programs to walk to the Penn State football team, has taken a roundabout path to where he is today.
The Governor Mifflin (Pa.) grad was immediately forced into action as a true freshman, not on the football field, but on the wrestling mat.
After an injury cost Penn State wrestling heavyweight Nick Nevills nearly the entirety of his redshirt freshman season, Johnson was asked by coach Cael Sanderson if he would join the team.
Not only had Johnson been away from the mats for nearly half a year, he was also greatly outweighed by the majority of his opponents. Johnson appeared in eight dual meets and eventually earned a national championship ring when the team took home the 2015.
As a redshirt freshman, Johnson was again forced into action after a slew of injuries, this time on the gridiron. He made his collegiate debut against Michigan in Ann Arbor before he as well suffered a season-ending injury.
“Since I got here, they always said prepare like you’re the starter,” Johnson said. “I’d actually just switched from WILL to MIKE that summer, and having (Brandon) Smith there ahead of me I got to ask him all those questions and I got to watch Jason take all of his reps.”
Johnson said that dealing with the injury, a torn ACL, was tough, but he’s since returned to 100 percent.
“Rehab stinks. I don’t know anyone who says it’s fun,” he said. “It’s not fun. I sat in the training room and I could see everyone else outside practicing and I’m in there barely walking when it first happened.
“You learn that you can’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to take everything seriously. If I didn’t rehab my knee seriously then there could be some complications.”
Johnson added that by the following summer he was back to practicing with the team and by the fall he felt at his best.
As a redshirt sophomore, he appeared in five games including a career-high, four-tackle performance against Rutgers.
Now, with Cabinda and Smith graduated, Johnson is ready to seize his opportunity.
“Jason left after he played all four years he was here,” Johnson said. “Now it’s an open slot and everyone here is competing for that spot. You just have to take every day like it’s your job application.”
James Franklin noted during his media availability that Johnson ran with the first team defense during the first day of practice on Friday.
“I thought (Friday), he had a really good practice,” he said. “I think what happens, typically, with guys is you really want guys in one of two categories. They either stand out to you because they are flashing athleticism and making plays, or you don’t notice them because they are consistently just doing their job.
“You don’t want the other category where your eyes are drawn to them because they are not making plays or they are not lining up, they are not doing the right things, and I think Jan ran the defense and played with a lot of confidence. He reminds us in some ways of B. Smith who had a great career for us.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry was also quick to praise Johnson and the way he’s performed in the offseason.
“I’m a big Jan Johnson fan,” he said. “You know, his story would be somewhat similar to Smitty’s. Jan is very physical, tough. Has done a great job of growing into the position. You know, he’s certainly in the thick of things.”
In order to claim the starting spot, Johnson will have to beat out newly returning senior Manny Bowen, redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks, senior Jake Cooper and true freshman Jesse Luketa.
But given his strong start and Penn State’s history at the position, don’t be surprised to see No. 36 take the field with the first-team defense on Sept. 1.