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Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson: From scout team to scholarship

After walking on, the Berks County native saw little game action and played on the scout team before winning the Lions' starting middle linebacker job. He was awarded a scholarship last week.

Penn State's Jan Johnson (center) tackles Ohio State's K.J. Hill on Sept. 29.
Penn State's Jan Johnson (center) tackles Ohio State's K.J. Hill on Sept. 29.Read moreCHRIS KNIGHT / AP

Walk-on linebacker Jan Johnson had heard Penn State head coach James Franklin tell the story that referred to him multiple times at team meetings, and here he was listening to it again last week inside the Lasch Football Building.

"It's about how one day you can be on the scout team and the next day you can be playing in the game," Johnson said Wednesday in a conference call. "I was just like, 'He's going to be telling this story again to the team that we've heard a couple of times.' Then he just kept going and going and going …

"And then he said I was on scholarship, which I wasn't really expecting."

It was a fantastic moment last Thursday for Johnson, from Mohnton, Berks County. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound redshirt junior has had quite a run, from one season on the wrestling team to backup linebacker to scout team tight end to starting middle linebacker this season. He is tied for the team lead in tackles.

"It's a good feeling knowing that your hard work has paid off and the coaches recognize what you've been doing," he said. "It's just also a great relief for my parents, that we don't have to pay for the rest of the schooling here that I'm doing."

Franklin was so excited that he took more than five minutes at his Tuesday teleconferernce to recount the story. He had been seeking the right time to give Johnson the news, and decided to do it after Saturday's game against the Indiana. But when he spoke last Thursday to the team, he knew he couldn't wait.

"I get emotional," he said. "I'm like, 'I don't know why I'm waiting until Saturday. Jan, you're on full scholarship,' and the whole place goes crazy. I didn't know I was going to do it. I just think it was the right thing to do. I'm talking to Jan and I'm like, 'What are we waiting for right now?' There's no better time than the moment."

During Johnson's first year on campus, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson lost one of his heavyweight competitors and asked Franklin if he could look at Johnson, a two-time Class AAA state high school champion. Johnson wrestled in eight dual meets for the Nittany Lions, the 2016 NCAA champions.

Johnson was a third-team linebacker later that year when injuries forced him into action at Michigan. He played less than one quarter of the Lions' crushing 49-10 loss before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and missing the rest of the season.

Johnson again was at the low end of the depth chart at linebacker last season when Franklin asked him to play tight end for one week on the scout team. He ran routes and blocked the likes of starting defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller. The effort impressed Franklin.

"It's just a really good example of Jan always putting the team first," he said. "You ask a guy who's trying to earn a job at linebacker to go play scout team tight end? Not once did he question it. Not once did he ever hang his head. Not once did he let his shoulders hang."

Johnson put in the same type of energy in the spring and in preseason camp to win the starting job at middle linebacker, where he replaced three-year starter Jason Cabinda. Some wondered why a starter at a key position didn't have a scholarship, but that issue was resolved.

When Johnson finally reached his parents that night, he wanted to wait before he broke the news. There was joy at the other end when he finally did.

"They were ecstatic," he said. "They were really happy for me, just that my hard work had paid off."