One of James Franklin’s wishes going into every Penn State football game is to win the turnover battle, and the Nittany Lions have been good in that area most weeks thanks in large part to safety Ji’Ayir Brown and his nose for the football.
The 23rd-ranked Lions, who take on No. 9 Michigan on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, are tied for second in the Big Ten with 15 takeaways. Brown is personally responsible for six – four interceptions and two fumble recoveries – and his ball-hawking talents were on full display last week at Maryland.
Brown, a senior from Trenton who transferred to Penn State from Lackawanna College before last season, grabbed a fumbled snap from center to stop a Terrapins drive at the Penn State 12, and later sealed the 31-14 victory with an 87-yard return of an interception for a touchdown.
“The turnover battle is a major part in every football game,” Brown said Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “Most likely the team that wins the turnover battle is going to win the game. Getting that late turnover was great for the team. It took a lot of stress off the offense and it gave the defense a break. It was a big relief for the whole team.”
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Brown, whose nickname is “Tig,” (a shortened version of the name of the Winnie the Pooh tiger character, Tigger) has had an outstanding season to date for the Nittany Lions. He ranks third on the team in tackles with 48, a figure that includes 42 unassisted tackles.
Brown and Jaquan Brisker, a former Lackawanna teammate who transferred to Penn State one year before he did, make up what Franklin calls “one of the better combinations of safeties in the country.”
“They just love football, they love it,” Franklin said. “They’re committed to being great. They both have a maturity to them. They’re great teammates with their peers. They also have a really good way with the coaches and know when to have fun and mess around, and when it’s time to work and lock in.
“To me, with Tig, his confidence has really skyrocketed this year. His ability to make plays, to get his hands on balls, and to create turnovers has been dramatic. He could have a few more. I just see his confidence growing as his experience grows. He continues to make plays and be around the ball. I think his future is very bright, I really do.”
Brown, who was raised by a single mother, starred in football and basketball at Trenton Central High School. His grades at the time discouraged most college recruiters, so he wound up at Lackawanna, a Scranton-based junior college with one of the nation’s best football programs.
Brown helped lead the school to the national junior college championship game as a freshman, and made first-team JUCO All-America the following year. That earned him a scholarship to Penn State, but he still appreciated how the school and Lackwanna head football coach Mark Duda helped him grow as a person.
“Lackawanna shapes you as a man early,” he said earlier this year. “You have to become a man as soon as possible, right on the spot. There are a lot of grown-man decisions you have to make. You have to be able to manage your time and your body on your own without the proper resources.
“Growing up extremely fast at Lackawanna helped me at Penn State mentally and physically, knowing that I had to take care of my body and study the playbook on my own and stuff like that. Lackawanna was a great opportunity for me.”
As for his relationship with Brisker, an All-Big Ten player in 2020 who came back for a fifth season, Brown said the two hit it off right away at Lackawanna. The times of playing together, working out with each other, and pushing each other bonded them as brothers.
When they’re on the field together, no matter how loud the crowd, Brown said he can hear everything Brisker says in the defensive backfield.
“He has a very distinct voice that stands out on the field,” he said. “It allows us to make adjustments and adjust to what we think the offense is about to run. It allows us to do stuff on the fly a lot of times. That allows us to execute on the field.”
The Penn State secondary will be tested Saturday by Michigan. It will be called upon to stop some big skill players like 220-pound running back Hassan Haskins, 6-3, 211-pound wide receiver Cornelius Johnson and 6-4, 245-pound tight end Erick All.
“We just worry about executing every week and being the best version of ourselves that we can be,” Brown said. “They do a lot of things extremely well. I’m looking forward to this game, and to compete.”