NFL-bound Jaquan Brisker made a prediction late last season about Ji’Ayir Brown, his teammate first at Lackawanna Junior College and then at Penn State.
“I feel like the torch is going to be his next year,” Brisker said, “and he’s going to know what to do with it.”
A senior safety, Brown has become the leader in Penn State’s talented secondary and one of the team leaders. He spent spring football practice encouraging, pushing and mentoring the safeties and the cornerbacks, just like Brisker did the last two seasons.
It’s why he decided to return to the Nittany Lions for his final season of eligibility instead of opting for the NFL.
“It’s amazing, man,” Brown said Saturday after the Blue-White Game. “It’s an amazing feeling. Young guys are coming to me for answers and coming to me for advice. I’m just blessed to be in this position to give them advice and give them some insight on what I see out there.”
The 5-11, 204-pound Brown was brilliant last year in his first season as a starter. He led the Football Bowl Subdivision with six interceptions, including two in the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. He had 73 tackles (third on the team), five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one tackle for loss.
He had a season very comparable to that of Brisker, who was named to the All-Big Ten first team and to almost every All-America second team. Yet Brown only made the coaches All-Big Ten third team.
“He’s a great player,” said Keaton Ellis, who likely will start next to Brown in the fall. “You can always trust him and know he’s going to do his job. It’s definitely comforting to have him there. Playing alongside him is really cool.”
Brown was a playmaker right from the start of last season. He intercepted a pass as time expired to help Penn State beat Wisconsin in the opener. He returned an interception 87 yards to seal a win at Maryland.
He stood out in a pair of one-score losses, making a career-high 13 tackles against Illinois and registering 10 at Michigan State.
“He’s a very smart dude football-wise,” Ellis said about Brown. “I’ve learned a lot from him. It’s the little things, too, outside the playbook, things he does specifically. He’s been really good for my process and growing at the safety position.”
Brown has guided two talented younger safeties, Jaylen Reed and Zakee Wheatley, who stood out during spring practice after moving from cornerback.
“Jaylen Reed came into the spring wanting to learn more of the playbook and different positions,” Brown said. “He’s improved tremendously in that area. Zakee Wheatley, the way he performed was unbelievable. Coming from corner to safety is a big change. He rose to the challenge. He wants to take over the game for us.”
Brown said he’s learned much from Brisker, who’s expected to be drafted in the second or third round later this week, and from Jonathan Sutherland, who has moved from safety to outside linebacker for Penn State.
“This guy (Sutherland) is perfection, man, even though perfection is hard to come by,” Brown said. “I still learn from Jon. I still pick Jon’s brain on stuff that he excels in and that I might struggle in. Jon has been tremendous for me, the team and Penn State football.”
Brown also has been a positive influence, not only with his play but with his eagerness to teach younger teammates and his willingness to be honest with them.
“I wanted to be that player-coach that Coach (James Franklin) was looking for,” he said. “The challenge for me this spring was how well could I lead. I took that challenge and I feel like I did a great job, connecting with my players on and off the field and making sure they’re comfortable taking criticism from me.
“It’s not just giving insight. The best part is that guys take the advice and they apply it every day in practice, so that’s been amazing for me.”