Two autumns ago, there may not have been a more impactful defender in college football, at any level, than Jaquan Brisker.
For the stingy Lackawanna College defense during an unbeaten campaign, he led the Falcons in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, crazy facts considering the roster listed Brisker as a safety. Thing was, Brisker was more than just a safety. He could play cornerback.
The Falcons could put him in the box like a linebacker. At times, he even had success rushing quarterbacks off the edge like an end might.
All of that made him one of the most exciting entities in Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class, but Brisker knew the score when he arrived in Happy Valley. He likely wasn’t going to be playing the same kind of way he did for coach Mark Duda and defensive coordinator Bill Reiss in his Lackawanna days.
He was going to have to be a true safety, and the transition pretty much became the story of his first season with the Nittany Lions.
“This season was a good year for me, with a lot of ups and downs,” Brisker said in the locker room at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after Penn State’s 53-39 win over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl Classic. “I had to learn how to play free safety, because I wasn’t used to that.
“I had never played just one position before. Just playing free safety in this defense, I was just roaming around the field more, being rangy.”
Big difference from his role at Lackawanna, where he did most of his work playing on the boundary. With the Nittany Lions, he had to learn a position that took advantage of his speed, size and willingness to deliver the big hit. But it also required him to accept the responsibilities that come with being a safety, and play with enough discipline to not hand opposing quarterbacks free shots down the field to receivers in one-on-one coverage.
The results got better for Brisker as the season wore on.
He played arguably his two best games of the season against Rutgers and Memphis, against whom he combined for nine tackles. Brisker finished the season with 32 stops and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He actually could have claimed the team lead in the Cotton Bowl, but his interception of a Brady White pass in the second half was negated by an offside penalty.
Next season, he’ll likely have the inside track on the starting spot vacated by Garrett Taylor’s graduation, and if so, he’ll hold a special place in the history of the burgeoning pipeline between Lackawanna and Happy Valley.
Lackawanna has long been known for sending quality players from the downtown campus to major-college programs, but players like Brisker succeeding at Penn State is a new phenomenon. Former head coach Joe Paterno rarely dipped into the junior college ranks for help, and his successor, Bill O’Brien, only began to scratch the surface in his two seasons. But Franklin landed several Lackawanna stars — most notably tackle Paris Palmer and defensive lineman Brenon Thrift — in his early days with Penn State to fill out a roster still depleted by sanctions. Now, he’s going back to the well in hopes Duda’s program can help put the Nittany Lions over the top.
Highly regarded offensive lineman Anthony Whigan and walk-on punter Bradley King are fellow ex-Falcons who joined Brisker on the Cotton Bowl championship squad, and safety Ji’Ayir Brown and receiver Norval Black were key members of the 2020 recruiting class. If Franklin has his way, this won’t be the last batch of Falcons heading a few hours west.
“For us, there wasn’t great history and tradition between the two institutions, which made no sense to me,” Franklin said. “I’ve known coach Duda for a long time, all the way back to my Maryland days because he’s a Maryland grad, and it just makes too much sense for both (programs). We’d like to sign the best players out of Lackawanna every single year. They have a bunch of them. We kind of look at it very similar to signing the best players out of the state from a high school perspective. I think that’s a real advantage.”
At a position where depth was a question mark heading into 2019, Brisker developed into a reliable hand. Now that he feels more comfortable in a new role, he believes he’ll show in 2020 exactly the type of athlete Lackawanna’s program produces, and how much they can help the Nittany Lions.
“I think next year’s team is going to be dominant,” Brisker said. “Of course, we’re always going to be LBU. But the fans should be looking forward to this secondary, too.”