STATE COLLEGE — Journey Brown shuffled out of the backfield Wednesday evening at Penn State’s practice and twirled his head to the right as he anticipated the pass from Sean Clifford.
Brown caught the ball, accelerated, then darted to the left side of the field. He side-stepped a defender, freezing him just enough to extend the play a couple more yards.
Penn State’s redshirt sophomore running back says he intends to bring that explosiveness and intensity to Penn State’s backfield this season.
“We all have our goals and stuff, but for me, I’m a huge team-player guy,” Brown said. “So it doesn’t matter if I’m the starter or second-team, if I’m playing, that’s fine. If they need me in different spots, that’s where I’ll be. I don’t care about my role, as long as we’re winning games. Wherever I can help, I’ll be fine with that.”
Brown, a Meadville High graduate, returned to team activities last week after serving a summer suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules. At 5-feet-11 and a chiseled 207 pounds, Brown indeed has the look of a feature Big Ten back. He’s also fielded kicks during fall practices.
Brown joins a crowded running back room. True sophomore Ricky Slade has the most experience, serving as Miles Sanders’ backup last year. Penn State added freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford in its latest recruiting cycle, and senior Nick Eury is also listed at the position.
Slade played in nine games last season and tallied 257 yards rushing and six touchdowns on a team third-best 45 carries. Slade was the first player to greet Brown off the practice field after one of his explosive plays during Wednesday’s practice.
“We have a lot of talent in Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford and Noah Cain, and it’s just always a competition,” Brown said. “We’re all tight-knit. We just compete in everything and have fun. Nick Eury pushes us to be greater. He’s been the guy we can rely on.”
With Brown, speed was never a question. He won two PIAA gold medals in the 100-meter dash, shattering a 32-year state record in the event in 2017. At Penn State, running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said he worked with the speedster to better incorporate his gift of speed onto the football field.
“I told him early he was trying to learn football because he was playing like a track runner,” Seider said. “He’s starting to figure this thing out that he can be a pretty good football player. Now he’s starting to understand what it takes to be a football player. He had unbelievable leadership in that room from Saquon (Barkley) and Miles from being around those guys for two years.”
After observing Barkley’s and Sanders’ habits, Brown said Penn State’s running backs were given a solid foundation.
“The mentality you’re supposed to have,” Brown said of their influence. “They kept pushing us and leading the way, just showing us how to be a good person on and off the field, and of course, how to play ball.”
Brown played behind Sanders and Slade last season. He scored his first career touchdown against Illinois, which is when Seider said the proverbial light turned on for him.
“It breathed a lot of confidence in him, because now he realized, ‘You know what? I can do this,’” Seider said. “And then you started seeing a progression as the season moved along and he started playing more. I’m excited for him. It’s year three, but really year two on the football field. I think he’s going to do some great things for us.”
Despite the muscle he’s gained, Brown said he’s maintained the agility and burst that makes his game effective.
“The more I work on my craft, the weight will start to follow — the techniques and things like that,” Brown said. “Once I learned how to carry my weight — when I gain it — it’s easy.”
Talent in the offensive backfield has never been a problem at Penn State. The school has produced 14 running backs who have been taken in the first or second round of the NFL Draft, including Sanders, picked in the second round by the Eagles in May. Barkley was the No. 2 overall pick in 2018.
Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson said Brown possesses two specific attributes that will benefit the offense, whatever role he may end up filling.
“He breaks loose, good luck catching him because he’s super-fast,” Johnson said. “The other thing with him is he’s physical, too. He’s not afraid to hit the hole and run you over. He’s not a huge back, but he’ll lower his shoulder, and he can definitely beat you with speed.”