James Franklin admits he was surprised. After all, not every junior college transfer arrives at a program like Penn State ready for the rigors and stresses of big-time college football.

As he did during his days at Lackawanna College, though, Ji’Ayir Brown continues to prove he’s an exception.

The 5-foot-11, 209-pound safety who led the stifling Falcons defense to the NJCAA National Championship Game last December, is listed as the top backup to all-Big Ten hopeful Lamont Wade on the season-opening depth chart released by Penn State on Tuesday. The move comes as a bit of a surprise, given what Franklin considers to be improved depth at the safety position. But, he added, Brown earned the spot over youngsters like Tyler Rudolph and Trent Gordon because of what he learned from the Lackawanna program.

“Ji’Ayir is a very mature young man, is a very appreciative young man,” Franklin said during his weekly press conference heading into Saturday’s opener at Indiana. “You look at Lackawanna College and what that program has done in terms of preparing him for this opportunity. He has come in and really understood what it takes to be successful here.”

Franklin raved about the quality of depth Penn State has at the safety position this season. Alongside Wade, the defense’s returning leader in tackles and forced fumbles from last season, the Nittany Lions are expecting a big season from another ex-Lackawanna standout, Jaquan Brisker.

Brisker worked as veteran Garrett Taylor’s top backup last season and recorded 32 tackles. He was one of four Nittany Lions tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

He’ll work as the boundary safety this season, the same spot he played during his Falcons days, and perhaps could team with Brown at some point to form an all-Lackawanna safety crew.

Their styles are different, but Franklin said one thing has been similar between Brown and Brisker: Both have shown a penchant for making plays on the ball in practice. That could come in handy for the Nittany Lions in the future. With Wade keeping an eye on the NFL and all players being given a waiver on eligibility this fall because of COVID-19 concerns, Brown could make a run at a starting job as soon as next season if he continues to improve the way he has.

“He’s got a very businesslike, mature approach,” Franklin went on. “And because of that, he’s gotten better, like, literally every day in the weight room, he’s gotten better in meetings, he’s gotten better understanding the importance and the impact of special teams. He just continues to get better. We’re very excited about him.”