Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks had very different paths to Penn State.
Johnson’s path has been well-documented since he became the starting middle linebacker last season – walk-on, scout team, went to wrestle for a few months, returned, tore his ACL, back to scout team and then eventually worked his way to the top of the depth chart.
Brooks was a four-star recruit out of Virginia who didn’t even get an offer from the Nittany Lions until about a week and a half before signing day in 2017. But once Penn State’s interest picked up and he received an official offer, Brooks was on board.
Now the two are splitting reps almost 50-50 and combining to form a tandem at middle linebacker that is critical to Penn State’s success on defense.
“We've got two really good middle linebackers that we're excited about,” James Franklin said. “Those two guys rotating by series, again, we think is invaluable for them and their durability and for their experience.”
Johnson and Brooks are objectively much different players – and everyone around them sees it, too.
Johnson, a senior, is leaned on for his experience and knowledge of Brent Pry’s defense.
“Jan, he’s an overall great player – really student of the game,” outside linebacker Micah Parsons said last week. “He’s obviously the smartest linebacker I ever met and smartest in the room. So he brings in that recognition and helps me on the field.”
“I think Jan is Steady-Eddie and really productive,” Franklin added, “and you know what you're going to get from him, in coverage, in run support and in commanding the defense.”
On the other hand, Brooks, a redshirt sophomore, just adds to the athleticism that already exists on the Nittany Lions’ front seven.
“I think Ellis, he just brings a little bit more speed, a little bit more pass rush in the game,” Parsons said. “Obviously a guy who gets a lot of sacks.”
Franklin mentioned how Brooks has the ability to make a few more “splash plays” than Johnson, but the experience that he’s getting this year and the knowledge he’s gaining from playing behind Johnson will be invaluable for when Brooks is the man in the middle by himself after Johnson graduates.
“Ellis is growing into what Jan is from an experience and from a knowledge perspective,” Franklin said.
Johnson and Brooks, despite each only playing half of the defensive snaps, are still fifth and eighth on the team in tackles, respectively.
Brooks has 2 1/2 sacks so far this season, but Johnson has come up with a pair of timely turnovers – an interception on Maryland’s first drive and a fumble recovery in Iowa territory that led to a Penn State field goal on Saturday.
“I think they both bring a piece of the game where it benefits us and either way, whoever is in, and I think that's really what matters,” Parsons said.
Through six games, Penn State’s defense is playing at an elite level and both Johnson and Brooks have a lot to do with that. The team ranks second in the country in scoring defense and yards per play, and third in rushing yards allowed per game.
“We’re pretty committed to stopping the run and we’ve had a lot of success with that,” Johnson said Tuesday.
But what’s most impressive about Penn State’s defense is that it gets stronger as the game goes on – the Nittany Lions rank first in the country in fourth-quarter defense – and a lot of that has to do with the depth and ability to rotate high-quality players series after series.