To hear his position coach Ja’Juan Seider tell it, Penn State running back Journey Brown needed last year to find a way to bring out the talent he held inside of himself, what Seider called “freakish athletic ability and strength.”
And after sharing the load with the Nittany Lions’ three other capable backs for much of the first eight games, Brown seized the spotlight for the final five contests. He capped off 2019 with a program bowl-record 202 rushing yards in the Lions’ Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis.
Brown averaged 118.6 yards on the ground in his last five games, gaining 100 or more in four of them. He finished with a team-best 890 yards on the season and his 6.9 yards per rush would have ranked him fourth in FBS if he had enough carries.
Finally, he showed everyone he was more than a track star in shoulder pads, a designation placed on him after having broken Delaware County native Leroy Burrell’s 32-year-old state high school record in the 100-meter dash as a senior at Meadville in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“We’re starting to see what redshirting and development over time can do for kids when you’re willing to work and be patient,” Seider said recently in a conference call. “He’s a prime example of that. Now he’s playing as a football player.
“When I first got here, I said he was a track kid playing football, and I meant that, but that was not being negative. He was a fast kid, he had measurables, he had talent, he just didn’t know how to tap into it, and over time he bought into it.”
The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Brown redshirted his freshman season and carried the ball just eight times for 44 yards the next year. Ricky Slade, who backed up Miles Sanders as a freshman in 2018, was the starter opening 2019 with Brown and freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford all seeing action off the bench.
Although head coach James Franklin didn’t want to anoint any of the backs as a first-teamer, Cain appeared to be at the head of the class after back-to-back 100-yard games against Purdue and Iowa. But he suffered an injury against Michigan State and carried the ball just once in the next four games.
Enter Brown. He rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns at Minnesota, 100 yards and a score against Indiana, 64 yards and a TD at Ohio State, and 103 yards and a career-high three touchdowns versus Rutgers. Then came his special day at AT&T Stadium, where four of his 16 carries went for gains of 56 (touchdown), 44, 32 (touchdown), and 20 yards.
Seider said Brown grew in confidence as the 100-yard games kept coming.
“You feel that you can do it against anybody,” he said. “The last four games – and I know I’m biased – but I thought Journey Brown was playing as good as any running back in the country.
“He’s got freakish athletic ability and strength that he’s finally tapping into. The thing that I was so impressed with in the bowl game was finally getting him to play as fast as he is. I thought he finally started to trust his track speed to football. The way he separated on that 50- or 60-yard run, that’s what I’ve been trying to bring out of him in the last couple of years. I think now he sees it.”
Seider said Brown carried it over to winter workouts, where he gained 10 pounds. He said the other backs in his room fed off of Brown, “pushing themselves to run with Journey, trying to compete and beat him in some of the sprint drills.”
Brown will have plenty of competition. Cain was second on the team in rushing with 443 yards in 10 games and scored eight touchdowns. Ford broke off an 81-yard TD run. True freshman Caziah Holmes impressed during the short time between his January enrollment and March’s campus closing. Kevonte Lee, like Holmes a consensus four-star recruit, was expected to report in June.