LATROBE – At this time a year ago, Justin Brown was in the middle of making a life-altering decision.
A standout wide receiver at Penn State, Brown decided to transfer last August following NCAA sanctions placed on the team as part of the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Brown landed at Oklahoma, where he became a key cog in an offense that included Landry Jones at quarterback.
A year later, Brown finds himself back in Pennsylvania – not all that far from State College – trying to win a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers in their training camp at Saint Vincent College.
That’s a lot of ground to cover for a young man in 12 months. And it taught Brown a lot.
“It was definitely an experience, not knowing anything about Oklahoma,” said Brown, a native of Wilmington, Del. “It was tough leaving all of my teammates at Penn State. But it was what was best for me. It worked out for the best because everyone in Oklahoma was really accepting, Landry (Jones), the coaches. Those guys accepted me and brought me along so that I could contribute.”
The decision to leave Penn State was a difficult one. But with coaching staffs from other schools – even some from rival Big Ten members – openly recruiting players on campus following the NCAA’s decision to allow Penn State players to transfer without having to sit out a year, things got a little strange.
“Some other schools contacted me, but I wasn’t just going to go to any other school, and definitely not a school in conference,” Brown said. “Those schools in conference were a little disrespectful. I went to Oklahoma just knowing the history of the program.
“It got crazy, especially coaches in conference. I’m not going to name any names, but they were waiting in parking lots, knocking on doors at apartments. It was a wild period for a little bit.”
It worked out well for Brown , a rugged 6-3, 209-pound receiver who was a sixth-round pick of the Steelers.
Oklahoma didn’t recruit Brown in high school, but the Sooners’ reputation, the coaching staff and the opportunity to play with a quarterback as talented as Jones, who was taken by the Steelers in the fourth round of this year’s draft, were too good to pass up.
Despite the late transfer, Brown made in immediate impact, catching 73 passes for 879 yards and five touchdowns, each a career best.
While Brown’s ability to catch the ball is apparent – he led the Steelers with four receptions for 32 yards in their preseason loss Saturday to the New York Giants – Pittsburgh likes some of the other things he can do.
“He’s real thick,” said Steelers wide receiver coach Richard Mann. “He’s a thumper. We can use him in run situations, in underneath stuff. You need that type of guy. Some guys’ bodies aren’t conducive to that. He’s a bigger guy. He’ll hold up.”
That could be the thing that sets Brown apart from other receivers battling for a roster spot, especially now that 6-5 veteran Plaxico Burress has been placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are set as the starters, while veteran Jerricho Cotchery and third-round pick Markus Wheaton also have spots locked up. Of that group, only Cotchery is of similar size to Justin Brown.
With a number of receivers vying for what is probably just one roster spot, any little advantage is huge.
Perhaps everything he’s been through in the past year will help Brown stay focused.
“There was a lot at stake,” Brown said of his decision to leave Penn State. “You’re with those guys all year long, working out, going to class with them. When you’re playing football, those are like your brothers. I made sure I talked to every one of my teammates and made sure. Once they gave me the OK, that was when I was comfortable making my decision. I wasn’t going to go without talking to anybody and just leave. I felt like I owed that to them.
“It was a tough transition at first, getting acclimated to the style of play and just the area. But the people, the town, the students, everyone worked hard to make me feel comfortable. It’s been very similar with the Steelers.”
Odds and end zones
Despite missing the preseason opener with a sore knee, rookie running back Le’Veon Bell was named co-starter with Isaac Redman. If Bell wins the starting job, he will be the first rookie running back to start the season opener since Tim Worley in 1989. … The punting competition has heated up as veteran Brian Moorman was elevated to co-starter with incumbent Drew Butler.