Sure, battling back from a serious knee injury to become Penn State’s starting middle linebacker as a walk-on is impressive and all. But it’s not the toughest athletic test Jan Johnson has faced.
In 2015-16, his first year on campus, he was asked to fill in as a heavyweight on Penn State’s national championship wrestling team because of injuries. But because the Nittany Lions were shorthanded at the weight class, that meant many of his practice sessions came against the coach himself — undefeated four-time national champion Cael Sanderson.
“It’s going good, but…,” Johnson told his other coach, James Franklin, at the time, “because I’m at heavyweight I have to wrestle Coach Sanderson every day. Coach, you have no idea. He just beats the heck outta me all practice.”
Three years later, fighting off opposing offensive linemen doesn’t seem so bad.
An all-state football player and state champion wrestler at Governor Mifflin High School in Berks County, Johnson is aiming to bring stability to an inexperienced group of linebackers.
Through two games, he leads the Lions in tackles with 16, three more than anyone else on the team and five more than any other linebacker.
It’s a huge step for Johnson, who has deep family ties to the university, with his mother, father, uncle and aunt all being former Penn State athletes.
Just as injuries forced him into action as a wrestler, they also put him on the field with the first-team defense for the first time against Michigan as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He recorded two tackles before tearing the ACL in his right knee.
He was able to return to appear in six games last season before winning the starting job in camp this summer.
“It took some time,” Johnson said. “When I first got here, I had not played a lot of linebacker in high school. I mainly played safety. I played a little bit of linebacker my freshman year, but that was years ago.
“I would say once my redshirt freshman year started going, I started doing all right and I wasn’t making those same mistakes and stuff. It was just a growing process. I think my sophomore year, I got real comfortable saying, I can play here.
“I didn’t come here to just be a scout team player. That wasn’t the goal. That’s not why I’m here. It’s here to play and participate and help be a factor for the defense.”
Of course, the job also means helping along some younger players who could potentially take it from him down the line.
Redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks has gotten a series here and there in the middle and true freshman Jesse Luketa took his first snaps at the position on Saturday against Pitt.
“They’re both great players,” Johnson said of his backups. “I think Ellis has done a great job. … When I go out there, I’m more like, I’m going to hit you, try to hit you, and he’s more creative finding his way to slip blocks or get himself to the ball. In watching spring ball he was always around the ball and is that way now. He’s got a nose to know where to go and he’s going to find a different route to get there.
“I think Jesse is still growing. It was great to see him get the reps and feel him get comfortable playing the Mike linebacker and commanding the defense, and being out there, his first real college game.”
Johnson will get the start again on Saturday against Kent State. If the Lions are able to build a big lead, however, it may mean more reps for the younger guys.
“You have an interesting three-headed monster there with Jan, Ellis and Jesse,” Franklin said. “And all three of them do good things and we’ll continue to see those guys get reps and opportunities.
“…That group will continue to evolve and grow, and you’ll see a lot of guys get an opportunity to make plays. I think at some point this season, either someone will take the job and take control of it and say it’s mine because there is a gap — or you’ll see a two-headed or three-headed monster continue to kind of evolve there and grow and get better week-to-week.”
Tale of the tape
Johnson said he’s very appreciative of the support he’s gotten from both the football and wrestling staffs over the years.
So how do Franklin and Sanderson compare as coaches?
“They both don’t have hair,” Johnson deadpanned. “So that’s kind of a similarity.”
“They both are strong leaders. You know what you’re getting from both of them. You know what the expectations are, what they want you to do and how they want you to do it.
“Coach Cael, I would say, he’s more silent. It’s kind of like, you know what he’s done in the past, and you know that he knows what he’s talking about to get there. And you know what the expectation is when you’re working with him.
“Coach Franklin is more — he’s going to tell you what to do, you’re going to do it. He’s going to be more enthusiastic and he’s going to be there in your ear yelling and cheering you on the whole way while you’re doing it.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse