During Jan Johnson’s freshman season, the middle linebacker directly ahead of him on the depth chart was a fellow walk-on named Brandon Smith. Smith’s career was a lot like the one Johnson is having now. They both battled their way through injuries to earn scholarships and become key members of the defense.

As a senior and and the returning starter at middle linebacker, he’ll be tasked with a much bigger leadership role. And one of his primary responsibilities will be to bring along a talented freshman who plays the same position. His name: Brandon Smith.

This Brandon Smith is already off to a much-different start than the one who sealed the Nittany Lions’ Fiesta Bowl win in 2017 with a fumble recovery on the game’s final play. This Smith was a five-star prospect out of Virginia and was rated as the top player in the state and the top inside linebacker in the country.

There’s also freshman and former five-star prospect Lance Dixon, who could play as early as this year at outside linebacker. And then there’s Micah Parsons, who is the most talked about player on the team. Parsons led the team in tackles last season as a freshman, despite making only one start at a position he never played before stepping on campus.

“It’s just nice to look around, we have a lot of talent in the room and we’re trying to develop a lot of guys,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Cam [Brown] and I are just trying to work on how we can help these kids and get as many [of them] as we can to be playing this year.”

Johnson called this linebacker corps “easily the most athletic” he’s been around, noting that a few days into camp, there are seven or eight players capable of making an impact.

It’s a far cry from Johnson’s first taste of college action, which came in Week 4 of 2016 at Michigan. The redshirt freshman walk-on replaced Smith, who was starting because of injuries and was ejected for targeting in the 49-10 loss.

“As a unit, we want to have the biggest impact on the game from all three linebacker positions,” Johnson said.