'It's a bit of a bittersweet moment'

‘It’s a bit of a bittersweet moment’

The end is coming, and Ji’Ayir Brown knows it. As Penn State prepares to head back to his home state of New Jersey to face Rutgers on Saturday, the fifth-year senior safety has only two games left in his final regular season of college football. In a couple weeks, Brown will move on.

In Brown’s eyes, this fall didn’t necessarily go how he wanted it to. Penn State won’t play for the Big Ten championship or in the College Football Playoff. He didn’t reach his own, unstated personal goals, either.

But the Trenton, NJ, native, who arrived at Penn State in 2020 from the JUCO ranks at Lackawanna College, has still served as a linchpin of the 2022 Nittany Lions in his third season in the program. He was voted a team captain, and he served as a key leader, both vocally and by example, for a program that avoided the kind of skid that defined the previous two seasons.

Since his arrival in State College two years ago, Brown has relished and appreciated his opportunity at Penn State. With this phase of his life winding down, he wants to embrace what he has left entering No. 11 Penn State’s final games.

“I’m just trying to slow these last two weeks down,” Brown said over Zoom on Tuesday. “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. I’m just trying to slow time down as much as possible. I knew this moment was gonna come, I knew this time of year was gonna come. I just wanted to be ready for it as much as possible, and it’s been a blessing. It’s been a blessing. It’s a bit of a bittersweet moment for me, but time moves on people, people move on. And my time is coming to an end.”

Brown has been one of the more consistent players in the Penn State defense this season, and the arrival of new defensive coordinators Manny Diazplus the emergence of depth in the safety room with senior Keaton Ellissophomore Jaylen Reed and redshirt freshman Zakee Wheatley all playing extensive snaps at times, has allowed Brown to add new things to his game.

He’s Penn State’s leading tackler with 55 (team-high 41 solo), and he’s also added 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after the win at Auburn in September when he recorded five tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, one interception and one quarterback hurry in the blowout victory.

Brown especially relished his first career sack in that game, and he said he’d been working on the move he used to get into the backfield since the summer.

penn state coach james franklin said he isn’t surprised that Brown feels like he hasn’t reached his goals. Even if Brown had 10 interceptions, Franklin said, it still wouldn’t be good enough for him.

As he reflected on his journey to this point, Brown explained how his play this season has reminded him of his time in New Jersey at Trenton Central.

“I’m all around the ball. I’m doing a lot of things, similar things I did in high school I’m doing now at Penn State,” Brown said. “I rushed off the edge back in high school, played a little linebacker, played safety. So it’s just coming full circle for me as far as from the football world, where all the positions and stuff that I’m playing now. I played all these positions in high school and to go out in my last year at Penn State, getting able to do the same thing, it’s kind of amazing, man. I definitely appreciate it. And I’m enjoying every moment of it so far. It’s been good.”

Brown’s intangibles have been meaningful for Penn State this season. The six team captains — a group that also includes quarterback Sean Cliffordcenter Juice Scruggsdefensive tackle PJ Mustipherlinebacker Jonathan Sutherland and long snapper chris stoll — have earned credit for helping the Nittany Lions avoid a swoon after crushing defeats to No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan.

Single losses derailed the 2020 and 2021 Penn State seasons. That hasn’t happened in 2022, and Penn State is on the fringes of the top 10 with an opportunity to still play in a prominent bowl game around New Year’s.

“I feel like his leadership, the way he goes about himself, it’s phenomenal, really,” wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley Wednesday said over Zoom. “Some people, I would say, just from my past experiences in football, they do a lot of talking but don’t back it up. But I feel like for him, he’s constantly showing — follow me, I’m the type of guy that is going to get the job done. I feel like for him, he just goes about his business the right way, and that’s what I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

“He’s got a really good way of being a great teammate to the guys in the locker room,” Franklin said Tuesday. “He also really understands how to interact with coaches and have a positive, healthy relationship with the coaches. He’s been phenomenal.”

Brown represented Penn State at Big Ten Media Days in July alongside Mustipher and Clifford. It was there that Mustipher offered a wholehearted endorsement of Brown as a teammate and a leader. Brown himself said sitting at the dais inside Lucas Oil Stadium as a member of the Nittany Lions was something that he never would have imagined happening.

He knows he took the long way to where he is now. Instead of going the Division III route at Montclair State, Brown went to Lackawanna College and cut his teeth in Scranton before following former Falcons teammate Jaquan Brisker to Penn State. Brown had to do more and work harder than many other Division I football players.

No one predicted or expected him to be where he is now.

“Yeah, it’s been amazing to watch, honestly,” Sutherland said Wednesday evening. “As soon as he came on campus, like, he was hardest working as anyone in this program, and just to see the strides that he’s taken, I’m so proud of him. Like, that’s my bro.”

Franklin expects Brown’s upward trajectory to continue when the process for the 2023 NFL Draft starts later this winter. Brown snuck into the draft conversation late last season, and he should be firmly in the mix to be one of the first safeties off the board next spring.

Franklin pointed out that while Penn State players traditionally test well at the NFL combine and Pro Day, Brown should also interview well, thanks to his magnetic personality. That should help drive him up draft boards.

Before thoughts of Indianapolis or drills in Holuba Hall or the draft itself in Kansas City, though, Brown has business to attend to in Central Pennsylvania. Just a few years ago, all of this was so new to Brown. Now, time is winding down, and Brown doesn’t want to miss anything.

“I’m just going to try to enjoy these last two weeks, these last couple of games and appreciate every little detail about Beaver Stadium, every little detail about the team, about the facility, about the culture, just keep being appreciative of that stuff, seeing the stuff that I saw when I first came in, and just reminding myself how blessed I am to be here,” Brown said.

Daniel Gallen covers Penn State for Lions247 and 247Sports. He can be reached at daniel.gallen@cbsinteractive.com. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @danieljtgallen.

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