Hard to imagine an athlete good enough to rush for more than 7,000 yards and 106 touchdowns in high school could go to college and feel like he didn’t know a thing about football anymore.
Journey Brown knows the feeling, though.
Some of those numbers he put on the stat sheet at Meadville High School went viral, of course, and his coaches insist it was no accident. They were a product of Brown’s immense talent. But the fact that they didn’t translate to much playing time in his first two seasons at Penn State were just as indicative of how much he had to learn to get where he is today.
The redshirt sophomore entered spring practice looking to make an impact on what head coach James Franklin insisted is a wide-open race for the starting running back spot. Brown heads into Saturday’s Blue-White Game looking to show what coaches have been raving about since March: that his confidence is catching up to his ability.
“Coming from a school like Meadville, we ran a different kind of offense, a Wing-T, old-school style,” Brown said. “I didn’t really know much football based off that at the time. For me, coming into an offense like this [at Penn State], it was a challenge. It took me a while to piece it together. It’s all learning the ways of football and how in-depth it is, and not just what I thought it was back in the day.”
Penn State hasn’t so much rebuilt at running back during the Franklin era as it has reloaded.
After Saquon Barkley immediately changed the game — not to mention the expectations around the program — following his arrival in 2015, the Nittany Lions replaced him with the top-rated running back recruit in the nation coming out of high school, Miles Sanders. Last season, his only one as a starter, Sanders ran for a brisk 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns, positioning himself to be among the top running backs taken in the NFL Draft later this month.
The coaching staff didn’t simply wait for that torch to be passed once, though. Ricky Slade, the sophomore who is expected to be Brown’s top competition for the starting spot this fall, also earned the honor of being the top-ranked running back recruit coming out of high school in the class of 2018. On his 45 carries last season, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns.
There’s also Penn State’s latest round of top running back recruits. Noah Cain, a 209-pound bruiser, is on campus for spring practice. Devyn Ford, another member of the 2019 class, isn’t. But both were rated within the top five running back prospects in the nation this year, and even though Franklin gave a vote of confidence in the veterans, running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said it’s likely both freshmen will get their chances to carve their own roles in a deeper running back rotation this fall.
“We’ll see multiple guys play this year,” Seider said earlier this month. “I feel strongly about that already.”
Franklin has joked he would sign up for just one game like the state record 722-yard, 10-touchdown performance he had in 2015 against DuBois, but realistically, he knew Brown would be a bit of a project. He needed to get bigger and stronger, in addition to figuring out how to operate more efficiently in Penn State’s offense.
Brown has slowly picked that up, Seider said. He understands his assignments now, avoids some of what he calls the “deer-in-the-headlights” moments that basically kept him a third-stringer. Now, Seider added, Brown is starting to mature, beginning to play with a confidence he hopes can make him one of the best game-breaking backs in the Big Ten.
“He can make us different,” Seider said. “His speed is game-changing. When he learns how to trust himself as a player, he can be special for us.”