When people talk about Penn State’s defense over the last two years, the two biggest names likely to come up are Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos. And why not? Those two athletically-gifted players have been a big part of the team’s recent success on defense and will more than likely be playing on Sundays sooner rather than later.

But the two anchors of the defense don’t have NFL futures that are as clear to see. Senior linebackers Jan Johnson and Cam Brown represent the connection between two very different eras of Nittany Lions football. They were both a part of the 2016 team that defied the odds to win the Big Ten championship. But now they’re bridging the gap to the next generation – the Parsons and Gross-Matos era that is filled with four- and five-star recruits and increased expectations.

Even though there has been only a handful of games he has not appeared in, Brown may be the more underappreciated player.

Everyone knows Johnson’s story. The former walk-on battled through several injuries, took a brief break from football to join the wrestling team, and ultimately won a starting job in 2017.

Brown’s story may not include as many setbacks, but Johnson still remembers where it all began.

“We were at Pitt [in 2016] and they threw him in there on punt return and burned his redshirt right there. He ended up playing a ton that year,” Johnson said. “We’ve been good friends ever since. Our relationship is good – I can text him or call him any time I need, whether it’s about football or our social life.”

Penn State's Cam Brown tackles Kent State's Jo-El Shaw for a loss as Jan Johnson looks on.
AP
Penn State's Cam Brown tackles Kent State's Jo-El Shaw for a loss as Jan Johnson looks on.

Ever since that game in Pittsburgh, Brown has been a fixture for the Penn State linebacking corps. He did not become a full-time starter until 2018, but he always has provided a spark, on the field with his reliable tackling or off the field with his leadership.

“Cam has been a great leader for this defense,” senior safety Garrett Taylor said. “At the beginning of the season before everything started, he kind of stood up in front of the defense and kind of gave us a little bit of a motivational speech. I think guys saw that and took that and ran with it.”

Recently, Brown has seen a shift inside the locker room. To Brown, it starts with James Franklin.

“The last year and a half, he’s been very aware of his surroundings and he wants to improve every aspect,” Brown said Tuesday. “You guys know him, he wants to improve on the details and things like that, but it comes to players, he wanted to improve his relationships and make sure that everybody understood where he was coming from in certain things and explains everything a little bit more in detail just so guys weren’t questioning things and certain things like that.”

Brown said that Franklin hasn’t changed, but the way he has gone about addressing players has as the locker room has gotten slightly younger over the years.

It feels like ages since the Maryland native first took the field at Beaver Stadium over three years ago, but he’ll do it for the final time Saturday when the Nittany Lions face Rutgers. He’ll experience everything – the bus ride, the walk into the stadium, running out of the tunnel – for the final time. He has been a part of a successful era in Penn State’s history, but that’s not what Brown wants to be remembered for.

“I want to be remembered as a guy that played hard all the time, fought through what he could fight through, and tried to be out there for his team,” Brown said. “I try to push, tried to lead this year, and granted, it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, but I feel like that part is going to at least stay in the locker room. The guys will know that I always fought for them, even with the coaches. I fought for the coaches in the locker room, I fought for the players with the coaches, and I feel like if that’s what I can leave here with, I’m good.”