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Brisker, Brown Headline Strong Lackawanna Pipeline For Penn State Football

Throughout Penn State football’s storied history on the recruiting trail, targeting players at the junior college level once served as an afterthought. 

Since James Franklin arrived on campus in 2014, the Pennsylvania native has worked to establish an in-state recruiting pipeline through Lackawanna Community College, a small liberal arts school in Scranton that competes athletically at the junior college level. In total, Franklin and his staff have landed nine commitments from the northeastern Pennsylvania powerhouse throughout an eight-year span in Happy Valley.

Although the school is best known as a developmental stepping stone from high school to college for potential Division I prospects, the newly-enacted Lackawanna effect is beginning to show its worth on the Nittany Lion roster. 

Currently, Franklin’s starting lineup houses three Lackawanna products, featuring safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown and offensive lineman Anthony Whigan. Specifically, the combination of Brisker and Brown on the backend has presented Brent Pry’s defense with a noticeable advantage in the secondary. 

In two games, the feared duo erupted for a combined 12 tackles, three pass deflections, and two interceptions. Despite gaining national traction, the two defensive backs always remain true to their humble roots.

“Lackawanna shapes you as a man early,” Brown said. “It’s not like [Penn State] where you might come in as a freshman and they kind of guide you through everything. When you’re at Lackawanna, you have to become a man as soon as possible, you know, right on the spot because there’s a lot of grown man decisions you have to make and you have to be able to manage your time, your body, and all of that on your own without the proper resources.

“Growing up extremely fast at Lackawanna helped me at Penn State mentally and physically, knowing that I had to take care of my body and study the playbook on my own,” he continued. “Lackawanna was a great opportunity for me. I’d go there again if I could.”

After not starting a game last season, Brown has already matched his production in tackles and exceeded his previous season-high in passes defended in just two contests. While the New Jersey native’s late-game heroics in the season opener against Wisconsin may have shocked all wearing red in attendance, Brown was able to block out all forms of distraction by remembering his adopted play style at Lackawanna.

“I definitely revert back to Lackawanna. It was so different, you know?” Brown said. “The fans weren’t there like they are now, and the game style is a little bit different. It was definitely a blessing, though, to be there and to be playing in Camp Randall [in front of] what I think [about] 90,000 fans. It’s been great to play with Brisker. As you all know, we’ve been doing this since Junior College, since Lackawanna, making plays. It’s just been a natural thing for both of us, so we’re going to continue to do it.”

As for his counterpart in the secondary, Brisker couldn’t have begun his senior campaign in a more contrary manner from Brown, despite sharing so many similarities. After proving himself following a Third Team All-Big Ten selection a year ago, Brisker recently earned preseason All-American honors and was listed as the nation’s top safety by Pro Football Focus.

Despite the distinct difference in experience, Brisker sees more similarities in his playstyle to Brown’s than any other defensive player he’s competed alongside, largely impart to their Lackawanna ties.

“That’s my brother,” Brisker said about Brown. “We came from the same college, so the chemistry is just different back there. You know, we’re just always on the same page. In practice, we’re always trying to make each other better. We’re not going to be light on each other or anything like that. We’re always going to compete and try to bring out the best of both of us. I feel like that’s a huge advantage.”

Although the two stars share a visible connection in the boundary, their bond extends far beyond the field of play. When Brisker continually faced adversity due to injury throughout the Wisconsin matchup, Brown knew his time off the field would be short-lived, which he attributed to Brisker’s fighter mentality.

“[Jaquan’s] a warrior. He’s always been a warrior,” Brown said. “There’s nothing new that he did out there that shocked me. I knew he was going to come right back, I knew he was going to keep playing. When you want to win so bad, there’s nothing that can stop you. You’re going to keep going, regardless of what’s happening, so I kind of expected that from Jaquan, and there was no surprise there.”

Fortunately for Penn State, the lethal defensive combination’s time off the field has been limited, which will prove to be crucial in its upcoming stretch consisting of two ranked opponents in the next four games. Although the results in the win-loss column will ultimately define the Nittany Lions’ season, the personal connection between Brisker and Brown is already cemented in stone.

“We’re going to continue to be brothers from here on out,” Brown said. “It’s just a permanent thing for us now.”

For Franklin, his work on extending the Lackawanna brotherhood to Happy Valley expands far beyond the tenures of his two starting safeties. In the current recruiting cycle, the Nittany Lions already have two verbal pledges from the Eagles’ program, in JB Nelson and Tyrece Mills.

With the looming departure of Brisker and Brown, five Lackawanna players will be on the Nittany Lions’ squad next season if the current commitments remain, giving the program the far-and-away advantage for most alumni on Penn State’s team.

In many ways, Franklin is able to relate his culture in place at Penn State to the one longtime friend and veteran head coach Mark Duda has in place in Scranton.

“We really feel like we are blessed and fortunate to have a program like Lackawanna Junior College in our own state,” Franklin said during the offseason. “How they have won, how the academic course work at Lackawanna transfers into Penn State, obviously, there’s a lot of familiarity there.”

For both in-state programs, familiarity is healthy. Featuring a roster littered with Penn State hopefuls, Mark Duda’s trend of molding Lackawanna’s finest into Nittany Lions seems to show no sign of slowing down. As for James Franklin, his teams will continue to reap the benefits of gaining mature and seasoned leadership from one of the nation’s most proven developmental programs.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania majoring in journalism. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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