Jan Johnson still remembers attending a Penn State-Michigan game back in middle school, sitting in the Beaver Stadium nose-bleeds and reacting with awe as the bleachers started to shake from 107,000 screaming fans.
“Wow,” the Nittany Lions’ starting middle linebacker recalled telling himself. “I don’t know how you could top this.”
Johnson grew up a fan of the blue-and-white, doting on greats like Michael Mauti. His father and uncle wrestled for Penn State; his mother and aunt swam for Penn State. Johnson wanted to follow in their footsteps and play football.
But most everyone in the small town of Mohnton, Pa. — about 150 miles east of Happy Valley, just outside Reading — thought that was a terrible idea. Three years ago, they had no clue he’d be leading the team in tackles (16) two games into the 2018 season.
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“Everybody thought it was not a great idea to go up there and spend four years,” his high school coach at Governor Mifflin, Mick Vecchio, said with a laugh. “He could’ve gone to Akron. He could’ve gone to one of the Ivy League schools and played quarterback there and maybe even start four years.
“But he wanted to prove to himself that he could play at the top level — and play well at the top level.”
Johnson’s path to Penn State was not a straight one. And his road to starting middle linebacker was even more crooked — but it was one paved with never knowing when to quit.
Back in September 2014, Johnson — a dual-threat QB and a defensive player who lined up anywhere and everywhere — accepted a scholarship offer from Akron. It was the only FBS school to offer him. He was a low-end two-star recruit, according to 247 sports, and other recruiting services like ESPN didn’t even bother to rank him.
But, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t stop thinking about his dream school. About Penn State and that Michigan game. Eventually, to the surprise of his Pennsylvania Dutch community, he gave up the free ride to Akron — where tuition is $18,801 a year — and decided to walk-on to Penn State.
“Growing up a big Penn State fan,” he said earlier this week, “all I ever wanted to do was come here and play football.”
Said Vecchio: “If there was ever a kid that wanted to go to Penn State, it was him.”
The all-state wrestler and two-time state champion redshirted his freshman season and joined the wrestling team in October 2015, when Penn State heavyweight Nick Nevills went down with an injury. With no other heavyweight on the roster, Johnson stepped off the gridiron and, with little practice and training, onto the mat.
He finished 1-9 on the season but prevented a number of forfeits and opponent pins. He became a fan favorite for his “selfless” attitude — and that’s a theme that continued when Johnson re-joined the football team full-time in the spring of 2016.
“He’s been an example of a guy that, whatever you ask him to do, he would do what’s in the best interest of the team,” coach James Franklin said. “He’s been unbelievably unselfish and just continues to get better.”
In 2016, he was the fifth-team middle linebacker who wound up on the field after an unbelievable run of injuries at the position. In his debut, against Michigan, he suffered a season-ending injury after making his first two career tackles. The walk-on bounced right back the next year and won the Red Worrell Award for his attitude in the spring. In 2017, as a backup, he did whatever was asked of him.
When Franklin needed a better blocking tight end on the scout team, Johnson didn’t question the coach. The 6-foot-2, 234-pounder prepared for both that and middle linebacker.
“If you ask anyone, Jan is an extremely hard worker and he’s really selfless,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “He always puts the team first.”
Said fellow linebacker Jarvis Miller: “He put his head down and worked hard and waited for his opportunity. Jan deserves all of this. ... That’s someone you want at MIKE.”
This season, outsiders expected Johnson to hold onto the starting spot only until five-star phenom Micah Parsons was ready to shine. Instead, it now looks as if Johnson has found a permanent home in the middle while veteran Koa Farmer watches his playing time give way to Parsons.
Johnson isn’t Penn State’s fastest linebacker. He’s not the strongest. But he might be the smartest. The former high school quarterback — who threw for 1,197 yards and rushed for 897 yards as a senior — knows how to break down film and knows where to be on the field. He doesn’t miss an assignment.
“He may not be the most athletic guy out there,” defensive tackle Rob Windsor acknowledged, “but he makes good plays because of the little things. He knows what’s going on around him.”
He still isn’t on scholarship — when asked, Franklin said it wasn’t the media’s business — but, publicly, Johnson hasn’t minded. “I would say playing is the most important thing to me right now,” Johnson said in the preseason.
The redshirt junior is continuing to do what got him this far: Hitting the weight room hard, putting the team first and doing whatever his coaches tell him. Maybe a scholarship will come after the season. But, even if it doesn’t, Johnson didn’t seem like a man who felt disappointed earlier this week.
“It was my childhood dream to come here and play here,” he said Tuesday. “It’s awesome to be fulfilling that right now.”