Here are Frank Bodani’s picks for Penn State’s greatest players during his 24 years covering the team.
Frank Bodani, email@example.com
Jan Johnson could have played for free, so to speak, at a smaller football school.
He did get a couple of scholarship offers coming out of Governor Mifflin High.
But he was a lifelong Penn State fan growing up near Reading. He wanted to play for the Nittany Lions — even if they didn’t want him quite as much.
It’s been nearly four years since he made that risky decision to walk-on. He would start at the bottom rung for his favorite team.
He would then be forced to overcome an ACL tear. He’d have to break out of the role of demonstration star in practice.
He’s done all of that and so much more. Start with earning that precious scholarship last month and his undergraduate degree before that.
His career curve is beyond the expectations of even the most confident Nittany Lion.
“My goal was to come here and help in any way possible,” Johnson said. “I definitely didn’t just want to be a scout team guy … I came in just trying to work hard and contribute and play a significant amount.”
But starting linebacker and team tackle leader?
“That’s pretty awesome. I guess that was better than my goal.”
Meet Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson
Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 234 pounds
Hometown: Mohnton, Pa.
Academics: Majoring in psychology
All in the family: His father, Jan Sr., and his uncle, Joel Johnson, wrestled for Penn State. His mother, Theresa, swam for the Nittany Lions.
Wrestling or football? Twice, he won District 3 and Class AAA State championships in wrestling. He even earned a freshman invitation from Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson to be an emergency replacement at heavyweight. He wrestled in eight dual meets, giving up at 50 pounds or more in most. And he helped win a national title.
James Franklin on Johnson: “Jan has always put the team first. Always. He’s always put the university first, put the athletic department first. The wrestling team needed him. He went over there and did what he had to do to help that organization. You ask a guy who’s trying to earn a job at linebacker to go play scout team tight end? Not once did he question it. Not once did he ever hang his head. Not once did he let his shoulders hang.”
Best moment: He picked off a deflected pass just before it hit the ground for his first and only collegiate interception at Illinois. One play later, the Lions scored and the rout was on.
Getting recognized: Was named to the Pro Football Focus “Big Ten Team of the Week” after last week’s Michigan game. He made 10 tackles, one for loss, and broke up a pass.
Lean on me: Johnson said he looked up to Brandon Smith, another former walk-on who became a starting linebacker at Penn State. The roomed together in 2016.
“I asked him millions of questions,” Johnson said. “Just seeing how he worked hard never complained, always did things right. I always picked his brain and asked what I could improve on.”
He’s a big fan: Johnson was asked to detail the most impressive highlight from fast-rising defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos.
“The Indiana game… he was blitzing off the edge and he threw the tackle to the ground with just his hands. Just how he was able to use his leverage to throw the offensive tackle to the ground was pretty impressive. He can do that at any time.”