When things began to unravel at Penn State amid the child sex abuse scandal involving former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, several players considered transferring to salvage their college careers.
For wide receiver Justin Brown, it was a difficult decision to leave the Nittany Lions. It was a program he envisioned being a part of during his entire time at Concord High School in Wilmington, Del.
The Steelers' sixth-round draft pick, who will take part in the first full-team workout of the offseason Tuesday at the team's South Side facility, opted to transfer to Oklahoma, mostly because the Sooners offered him an opportunity to showcase his skills. It didn't take long for quarterback Landry Jones, the Steelers' fourth-round pick this spring, to make him his go-to target.
“When everything broke at Penn State, Oklahoma was one of the first schools to contact me,” said Brown, a native of Cheltenham. “I didn't really entertain any other offers. When Oklahoma called, I thought it would be a benefit for me to make that move.”
Brown considered staying at Penn State, but the scandal coupled with the uncertainty of an impending coaching change influenced his decision.
“Everything that happened at Penn State surprised everyone,” he said. “Nobody saw it coming.”
Brown's position coach was Mike McQueary, a key witness in exposing the scandal that ended the late Joe Paterno's coaching reign.
“With all the things that were going on at Penn State, Justin thought it was a good opportunity for him,” said Jay Norvell, Oklahoma's co-offensive coordinator. “It worked out well, because he got a chance to catch a lot of balls here.
“It was a very unusual and sad situation for everyone involved at Penn State. Justin loved Penn State because he's a loyal kid. That situation put that program in a tough place. It put Justin in a difficult spot, too.”
Brown delayed his decision while attending summer school at Penn State. He decided on the Sooners shortly after classes ended and missed the first week of training camp.
“Justin learned the system and became an instant starter,” Norvell said. “He didn't miss a beat. After the first two games, he played exceptionally well.”
Norvell said Brown left an impact during his the short stay in Norman, Okla. He transitioned quickly, partly because of his diligence in the classroom and the immeasurable time he spent in the film room.
“It was tough to transition, but at the end of the day football is football,” Brown said. “I was exposed to a lot of different styles in the last year and half, but it's part of the business. You have to learn to adapt and learn from different people.
“It was difficult at first getting used to a different style of play. The Big Ten is more physical and run-oriented than the Big 12. Oklahoma was receiver friendly.”
At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Brown's size impresses the Steelers, but his production at a program that relies on a balanced attack was equally impressive. His sure hands and ability to stretch a play after the catch drew praise from most scouts.
“We talked before the draft, so we knew Pittsburgh had some interest,” said Norvell, who was a receiver coach with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders. “He came to Oklahoma because he wanted to play with Landry Jones, which helped in his development.
“He makes tough catches in traffic. He is a big-body kid, which is something everyone is looking for.”
The Steelers have a big receiver in Plaxico Burress and a dependable possession receiver in veteran Jerricho Cotchery. Brown will spend much of training camp picking their brains on how best to transition to the NFL.
“I haven't had a chance to meet them yet, but I'm excited to play with them and learn as much as I can,” Brown said.
Norvell and Sooners head coach Bob Stoops harnessed Brown's power. They put him in positions to utilize his athletic ability in the open field.
“I'm going downfield not just to catch the ball but get yards after contact,” Brown said.
Richard Mann, the Steelers' first-year receivers coach, wants Brown to polish his fundamentals before training camp opens in late July. He has few concerns about his willingness to compete and excel.
“He is very productive, and that tells you something about the guy,” Mann said. “I think he has good toughness, and that's part of being a good receiver. He'll lock up downfield, and I think that is a part of it also.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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