No one saw Ji'Ayir Brown coming, except for maybe Montclair State, which was the only school to offer him an opportunity to play football out of high school. So after Saturday's Outback Bowl, the Penn State safety thanked the Red Hawks.
"I mean, nobody wanted to talk to me," Brown said. "No offers. Montclair State believed in me, so shout-out to Montclair State, because they believed in me."
Four years, a junior college and six Penn State interceptions later, Brown will enter the 2022 season as one of the Big Ten's top safeties. He announced in December that he would return for his final season of college eligibility, establishing a secondary anchor with cornerback Joey Porter Jr. that the Lions desperately need.
Penn State coach James Franklin continued expressing his gratitude after the Outback Bowl, in which Brown's two interceptions were a highlight of the team's 24-10 loss.
"He is a football player," Franklin said. "Loves, loves to play the game."
Brown, a Trenton, N.J., native demonstrated that last week. Though he didn't practice in Tampa (for undisclosed medical reasons) and wasn't cleared to play until Friday, Brown jumped right into the game. He made an end-zone interception on a dynamic first-quarter read and later picked off a halfback option pass that certainly didn't fool him.
Brown, who also made six tackles, continued to develop his keen ball sense all year, finishing with six interceptions and following the path established by Jaquan Brisker. He has a gifted sense, and study, for the game.
Watch how Brown tracks this play, and then read how he describes his approach to reading Arkansas' offense.
"The sprint out," Brown said of Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson. "Nine times out of 10, when people sprint out, they're not looking back at the other side. So you always have to find work. And my job was, go find work. I saw those guys over there running their routes. And I went to go rob whatever route was coming toward me, and that was just the one."
Brown has been doing that all season, beginning with his victory-clinching interception in the opener vs. Wisconsin. That he leveraged such skill and knowledge without practicing all week made Franklin proud and even a little concerned.
"He literally did not get cleared until Friday post-practice," Franklin said. "I'm not, as a coach, real happy about that, because I would imagine he's going to tell me he doesn't have to practice all next year."
Unlikely. Despite being an all-state player as a senior at Trenton Central, Brown had few other college football options outside of Montclair State. So instead, he spent two seasons at Lackawanna College playing for head coach Mark Duda, who helped shape Brown into a first-team junior college All-American.
"That's what drives me," Brown said. "That's what drives the guy you're sitting in front of right now. Nobody believed in me earlier in my career. I believed in myself. I never let the faith go. I always look back on that time when one yes or one no would have been a whole different scenario in my life. So, I always look back and always keep that as motivation to push me forward."
Brown's offseason began Sunday, as he planned to begin studying film and working with new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. He still has a long way to go.
"My whole life, I've been betting on myself," Brown said. "Even when I got to Penn State, I felt like I had to prove myself even more. I'm pretty sure in 2020, I wasn't expected to do anything. Nobody knew I was gonna come this far. So, for me to keep taking these steps, it just keeps proving to myself that I was right, that I was able to be one of the best guys around."