Walk-on Johnson quietly makes name for himself at linebacker
UNIVERSITY PARK — Jan Johnson came to Penn State as a walk-on, but he’ll end his career as a two-year starter at middle linebacker for “Linebacker U.”
That’s a remarkable achievement, and no doubt Johnson has surprised many people along the way by his success.
But when asked if he’s surprised even himself by it all, Johnson humbly replied no.
“Really proud of where I am,” he said. “This is what I wanted to do when I was in high school. I said I was going to come up here and try to find a spot to play, and I’ve done that.”
Johnson was a superb all-around athlete at Governor Mifflin High School near Reading, playing linebacker for three years and quarterback for two. He also was an elite wrestler, winning two Class 3A state titles, and participated in track and lacrosse.
He not only came to Penn State trying to fulfill his football dreams as a walk-on, he also competed on the Nittany Lions’ national championship wrestling team in 2015 as a heavyweight in eight dual meets.
“It’s just kind of been going with the flow, really,” the soft-spoken graduate senior said of his multi-sport career. “When I was in high school I played a lot of sports, so it wasn’t really too big of a thing to jump from one sport to another.”
Johnson always believed he would earn a chance on the football field for Penn State, and that arrived at Michigan in 2016. The Lions had a slew of injuries on defense, so Johnson’s name was called in the second quarter.
He played a couple of series and made two tackles, then suffered a season-ending broken leg. It was a brutal day all together for the Lions, who lost 49-10.
Johnson overcame the injury and played in six games as a reserve in 2017, recording 12 tackles.
Entering last year, there were a lot of question marks about Penn State’s defense, including middle linebacker. The coaches loved Johnson’s work ethic and knowledge of the system, so they tabbed him the starter.
While many doubted he could handle the demanding position, Johnson did a solid job as he started every game and made 72 tackles (42 solo).
“I always thought it would be an opportunity,” Johnson said of coming to Penn State. “I didn’t necessarily know how it was going to go, but I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better than it has already. So I just want to continue with this ride.”
There’s nothing flashy about the 6-foot-2, 231-pounder, and he doesn’t light up the stats sheet. But Johnson is always in the right position, thanks in large part to his preparation.
“You don’t necessarily have to be the biggest, strongest, fastest person to be a good football player,” Johnson said. “If you have some smarts and understand how to use your angles and what your skill set is, I think that’s kind of helped me get in position that I’m in.
“I just constantly work hard, just try to make sure every play I do that I’m doing it the best I can, I’m in the right spot,” he added. “That’s a big thing with knowing the playbook and mental part of the game is knowing where you should be.”
Johnson is in line to start in the middle again this season, although sophomore Micah Parsons could get some opportunities there as the season progresses.
A big thing for any young college player — and Parsons has said this was key for him last year — is learning the playbook in and out so that everything else can become second nature.
“Trying to learn the playbook, that’s a big adjustment for some young guys,” Johnson said. “Learning how to watch film, trying to get your time management done with school (are other ones).
“Practice is a big adjustment. We’re not just out here for an hour or two like in high school doing nothing. We’re actually trying to get work done, and stuff is timed in periods, and we have stuff to do.”