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Two Penn State Starting Linebackers, Three Penn State Degrees and Counting

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We should remember to be respectful to the student athletes when we discuss our thoughts on what is best for the team.

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It is sometimes easy to forget that there are young men inside of those white helmets that run around on the football field representing Penn State. We ask those young men to perform at a high level once they set their feet on the lush green grass inside of Beaver Stadium and sometimes criticize their play when it isn’t as we would expect it to be.

We should remember that the journey for the players is long, full of sacrifice and hard work, before they ever get a chance to play on Saturdays. Two current Penn State starting linebackers have waited a season for their chance to play by redshirting once they got to campus. Starting outside linebacker Koa Farmer has played several positions on defense and special teams for the Lions. Jan Johnson has played multiple positions for coach James Franklin, and multiple sports while at Penn State.

And while fans appreciate the student-athlete aspect of the college football game, it is sometimes overlooked. Farmer and Johnson have three college degrees between them, and will likely leave Happy Valley with five or more altogether.

The pair has been to all of the practices, all the meetings, sat out a season patiently waiting their turn, have been the epitome of a student athlete, and positive representative for the university, while earning their starting position.

In addition to all of that the two players are facing a near-constant onslaught of negative criticism from people that follow the Penn State football team. So many of the critics are calling for young, inexperienced players, to leapfrog Johnson and Farmer on the depth chart. Thankfully the coaches do not agree.

Their Penn State Resume

Koa Farmer- At the time Farmer committed to Penn State in 2014, the thought was that he could form a nice tandem with fellow safety recruit Trace McSorley. Farmer took a redshirt in 2014 and then returned 18 kickoffs for the Lions while playing mostly special teams in 2015. Four games into the season in 2016, Farmer officially moved from safety to linebacker, making his way into the starting lineup twice, including the Rose Bowl. In 2017 he started all 13 games at linebacker. He started the first two games this season.

In the classroom Farmer has exceeded expectations. He graduated in May with two degrees, one in criminology and one in sociology, and is now working toward his third degree, this one in journalism.

Jan Johnson- Johnson took an interesting path to the football field in Happy Valley. He played mostly safety in high school before switching to linebacker in college. In 2015 he took a football redshirt while also competing on the Penn State national championship wrestling team as a heavyweight, seeing time in 8 dual meets. In 2016 he was forced into action earlier than anyone, including himself, had imagined. A season-ending knee injury ended the only game, versus Michigan, that he played. In 2017 Johnson played in six games. He started the first two games at linebacker this year.

Johnson is a rare graduate junior in terms of eligibility. While wrestling and playing football during his freshman year, and rehabbing a knee injury the next season, Johnson found a way to finish a psychology degree in just three years. He made the Dean’s List during the same semester that he suffered the devastating knee injury, and followed that up with an Academic All-Big Ten selection last season. While it is a decision that will be made in the future, Johnson may apply for and be granted an additional season of eligibility. He may one day be a doctor senior middle linebacker.

The Outlook

Here is what Jan Johnson had to say about the two players that are behind him on the depth chart at middle linebacker earlier this week. The first player he talks about is redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks, Johnson’s most immediate competition for the starting job. He goes on to credit true freshman Jesse Luketa, who is currently listed on the depth chart as the third middle linebacker.

The maturity in Johnson’s voice, whose full name is Jan Curtis Johnson Jr., is clear as he speaks about the players behind him on the depth chart. Johnson turned twenty-two in April. Luketa and Brooks are 19.

He spoke about the ability that Luketa has shown to grasp the playbook, which is surely an advantage that Johnson holds over the two younger players. Brooks is strong in that category as well, and coach James Franklin mentioned during the preseason that Brooks is the most natural player at middle linebacker that the team has on the roster at this point.

Were Brooks or Luketa able to surpass Johnson for the starting job, it is certain that Johnson will continue to get meaningful snaps. Much like linebacker Brandon Smith’s journey at Penn State over the past few years, Johnson may not stay in the starting lineup for his entire career, but he will be in the rotation of players that see the field. It will be an asset to have a former starter on the sideline, and in the meeting rooms to help younger players along, should Johnson lose his starting job.

Outside linebacker Koa Farmer has a future Penn State star sitting on the bench behind him in Micah Parsons. There were calls for Parsons to start from day one from some fans but defensive coordinator Brent Pry thought otherwise. There is a lot to learn for a player before they can perform at the level needed on a defense that has hopes of competing for a national championship.

Pry has proven to be a competent defensive coordinator, and it is in his best interest in terms of his career, and also as a competitive person, to put the best group of players on the field. By putting Parsons behind a player that has as much experience as Farmer, it removes the possibility of Parsons winning the job outright. Koa Farmer is going to play a lot of football because it is in the best interest of Brent Pry’s defense, whether he holds on to the starting job for the entire season or not.

Why play a less physically gifted player?

There are many nuances to playing linebacker and during the game it is important to be able to make adjustments on the fly. It may take 15 seconds to relay information to a young player that could be given to another, more experienced player, with a brief hand gesture. That could be the difference between taking a timeout or not in the heat of a game. For people that criticize the time management skills of a coach, this is a factor that is sometimes overlooked.

We saw it come into play versus Appalachian State when the Lions were forced to call two timeouts late in the game to adjust their defensive positioning. Had App State not broken a couple of tackles on its final touchdown, the clock, and those timeouts taken, could have proven fatal.

There is also the fact that the players that are starting have earned that starting position. Koa Farmer and Jan Johnson were selected as the starters at linebacker by the rising coach Brent Pry because he feels that they give him the best chance to win at this moment. Each player has done everything that has been asked since joining the team years ago and has risen to the top of the depth chart due to merit; the result of their actions and hard work, not the composite opinion of people watching from outside the program.

While we all agree that the best players should play, we should consider whether or not Brent Pry is aware of which players are the best. Since he is at every practice during the season and also the long offseason, and has a football acumen that far exceeds most of ours, it should be easy to defer to Pry. The players that he puts out there, we should assume, are the players that have earned that spot and that give the team the best chance to win.

We as fans should remember when we criticize players such as Farmer or Johnson, that they are good young men who have done so much right. They should be forgiven for their limitations in the eyes of those outside of the program if Pry feels that they are the best player for the job.