Ji’Ayir Brown embracing leadership role as he returns home for contest against Rutgers
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After being named the Northeast Football Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, Ji’Ayir Brown came to Happy Valley looking to continue his elite play.
However, Brown played sparingly in his first season with Penn State backing up Lamont Wade, as he made just six tackles.
With Wade moving on to play professionally, Brown was thrust into a starting role, and his impact was felt right away.
The Trenton, New Jersey, native posted 73 tackles, tied for the nation's lead with six interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and a tackle for loss.
Fast forward to the present day, and Brown gets to return to his home state of New Jersey for his final road game donning the blue and white.
The fifth-year safety knows he’s come a long way since dominating at the JUCO level with the Falcons.
“I’m just trying to slow these last two weeks down. It’s been a hell of a ride here at Penn State, and you never want to see it come to an end, but nothing lasts forever,” Brown said. “I’m just trying to slow time down as much as possible. I knew this moment was going to come. I knew this time of year was going to come. I just wanted to be ready for it as much as possible.”
Brown grew up 45 minutes away from Rutgers’ campus and expects a big turnout of family and friends on Saturday.
The last time Penn State traveled to Piscataway was during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 campaign, which didn’t allow fans to be in attendance.
Now with fans back in full force, Brown is going to have plenty of family in the stands to watch him take the field for one of the final times.
“It’s going to be good, my last year at Penn State, play in Jersey one more time, play a great opponent like Rutgers, and be able to put on a show for my hometown,” Brown said.
After finishing 7-6 last season, the Nittany Lions bounced back in 2022, sitting with an 8-2 record with just two contests left.
For a second straight campaign, Brown leads the team in interceptions with three while recording 55 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Despite the team's success, Brown said he and the blue and white haven’t met their goals for 2022. When asked about that, James Franklin said he wasn’t shocked Brown answered the way he did.
“He’s been phenomenal in every way that I could describe it,” Franklin said. “I would say really no matter how this season has gone if he had 10 interceptions right now, I think he’d still be disappointed. It’s just kind of how he’s wired.”
Penn State has two top prospects in this year’s NFL Draft, cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and left tackle Olu Fashanu.
Brown currently ranks as the third-highest-ranked safety on ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. board and is projected to be selected in the second or third round.
However, Franklin doesn’t feel Brown is getting the recognition he deserves as one of the top safeties and players in the country.
“When it comes to college football awards, when it comes to the NFL, his name should be all over the place,” Franklin said. “He’s playing his tail off. He makes his teammates better. He’s able to impact the game both in the run game and in the passing game.”
Brown credited his development as a player and person to fellow safety and former Lackawanna teammate Jaquan Brisker.
After forming a dynamic duo in 2021, Brisker moved onto the NFL leaving Brown to fill the void not only on the gridiron but in the locker room.
Wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley transferred to Penn State this season, and he called Brown a “phenomenal” leader for the Nittany Lions in his lone year as a captain.
“Some people, I will say from my past experiences in football, they do a lot of talking but don’t back it up,” Tinsley said. “But I feel like for [Brown], he’s constantly showing, ‘You follow me, I’m the type of guy that’s going to get the job done.’ I feel like, for him, he just goes about his business the right way.”
Brown’s ability to lead isn’t surprising, as the Falcons dominated during his time there. In 2018, Lackawanna finished with an 11-0 record, winning the El Toro Bowl and finishing No. 6 national rankings.
The following season the Falcons also saw great success, as Brown led them to the NJCAA Championship game with a 10-1 record.
After finishing community college, the Trenton, New Jersey, native had just two Division I offers from Penn State and Kent State.
Despite receiving just two offers after Community College, Brown found his home in Happy Valley and has become one of the nation's most underrated players.
“It’s just an unbelievable experience, being where I come from where there are not too many opportunities like this given out. I just tried to make the best of every one of them and just tried to appreciate it throughout my whole career, knowing that my time was short,” Brown said. “I tried to soak in as much as I can, learn as much as I can from these coaches and staff, and just go about it that way and appreciate it while it’s here before it’s gone.”
Alex Rocco is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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