His own pursuit of the postseason is thrilling enough.
Brandon Polk carries no jealousy or begrudging feelings toward his former teammates or coaches on theirs.
“I do think it’s unique,” Polk, the James Madison senior wide receiver who spent the last four years with Penn State, said. “I’m still friends with all the guys up there and every week I’ll text them, ‘Good luck.’ And they’ll text me the same thing. I still keep in touch with all of them, and it’s kind of unique that we’re both aligned with the same thing and we’re all having success, so it’s pretty neat.”
The Dukes are 8-1 and ranked No. 2 in the STATS FCS Top 25 while the Nittany Lions, Polk’s past squad, are 8-0 and ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 of the FBS. JMU seeks its sixth straight trip to the FCS playoffs and Penn State is looking for its first ever berth to the College Football Playoff.
But Polk’s move from State College, Pa., to Harrisonburg has gone even better than anticipated for the Ashburn native.
Polk leads JMU in all three receiving categories with 44 receptions for 680 yards and six touchdowns through nine weeks. He set career highs for receiving yards in a game twice within the last month – racking up 105 yards against Stony Brook on Oct. 5 and then 121 yards last Saturday against Towson.
With three regular-season contests left and the potential for as many as four more in the postseason (assuming the Dukes earn a first-round bye), Polk could become just the second player in school history to top 1,000 receiving yards for a season. The only one to do it previously was David McLeod in 1993.
“It’d be a big accomplishment,” Polk said. “I’ve never done that before, have over 1,000 yards and I’ve always seen a lot of people that I’ve been around who have had that at Penn State or people who I’ve watched that are in the NFL or went to various colleges, and it’d be something very cool.
“But that’s not my focus. I’ve never been like, ‘I need to get 1,000 yards.’ That’s never what I’ve ever been about.”
Polk said he didn’t set goals to be the best receiver on the team or shatter the 1,000-yard mark, but instead wanted to bring everything he learned in his previous stop with him to JMU to help his new teammates and coaches try to capture a national championship come January.
“I really haven’t seen him have a down day on the practice field,” JMU coach Curt Cignetti said of Polk. “You know what you’re going to get every single day and I think that maturity and stability has really helped us.”
When Polk became available in the offseason, there were connections between the receiver and the school he would eventually transfer to.
Former Penn State graduate assistants Ryan Smith and Andrew Jackson are on Cignetti’s staff, so they vouched to Cignetti about Polk and vouched to Polk about Cignetti and the expectations for football at JMU. Polk said he was encouraged when he visited before committing because Dukes spur Wayne Davis as well as running back Jawon Hamilton, who began their careers like Polk at high-level FBS programs Ohio State and Central Florida respectively, shared with him their experiences about joining the Dukes.
“I think one of the things that really tipped the favor of going to JMU was that he had two coaches from Penn State there,” said Ed Polk, Brandon’s father, “who he could talk to.
“In the recruiting process sometimes people tell you what you want to hear versus what’s true. And we knew since he knew some coaches from Penn State that we’d get a real straight shooter to tell us, ‘Hey, this is what the program is like.’ They had a good enough relationship with Brandon that they weren’t going to sugarcoat anything, and I think that made it a real easy transition going to a place where you have some people you know.”
So assimilation from the FBS power to the FCS power was easy for Brandon Polk.
He said when he arrived in the summer, he watched how wide receivers Riley Stapleton and Kyndel Dean ran routes, worked out with them and got to know them, and then made sure to catch extra passes from quarterback Ben DiNucci.
By the start of training camp, Polk was as comfortable with the team as anyone else on the roster.
Polk said he felt like he could guide younger players through his approach to practice.
“I tell them pretty much that ‘if you see me doing something that you don’t think is a high enough standard for me, then tell me,’” Polk said. “And that’s because I just want to make sure that I’m out there giving a great example for everyone else, so that when I’m gone, the work ethic or what they see me do stays here and just continues to go on and that’s basically what my goal has been here this year.”
Polk said it’s something he took from watching older and accomplished players during his four seasons with Penn State.
“You got Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Trace McSorley,” Polk said of four players who are all in the NFL now. “They were just great guys that I was around and I could pick little things from them to help my game.
“That’s why I never say going there was ever a bad decision or anything like that. I learned a lot from the people that were there. I gained a lot of experience about how to make plays in big games by watching other people make plays in big games, so I’m always grateful for having the chance to go there.”
Dukes senior safety Adam Smith said Polk’s practice habits have only boosted a team with an already-positive commitment to succeed.
“He’s kind of started his own culture, honestly,” Smith said, “where everyone has kind of been watching him, how locked in he is, how focused he is and how he’s just about his business. And that’s what we always say, so just seeing him be that way, it’s definitely inspiring to see that. There’s a right way to do it and he’s getting the job done.”
Cignetti said: “A program like Penn State is highly structured and they’ve got a lot of great athletes that are committed in the way they do things with their process, so [Polk] understands how to come to work every day with consistency and performance.”
But even before getting to Penn State, he played with similar demeanor according to Charlie Pierce, the former coach for Briar Woods High School where Polk was a standout along with McSorley.
“He wasn’t boisterous or anything like that,” said Pierce, who attended Saturday’s game at Bridgeforth Stadium to see the Dukes and Polk square off with Towson and Tigers wide receiver Ryan Rutkowski, another Briar Woods product.
“But as far as practice,” Pierce said, “he always came to practice and worked on his catching, his route running and he was constantly always working to be the best he could be when we had him at Briar Woods.
“And I think him spending those four years at Penn State and going to their businesslike attack at the highest level, because the higher you go, the more businesslike it is. And that is all levels of college, but in the Big Ten, SEC and all those, you have to perform and to perform, you need a singular focus and a team focus and from what I’ve seen he’s been able to bring that to JMU and that’s permeated to the team.”
The 5-foot-9 receiver, Polk, came to the Dukes with credentials, too.
It wasn’t like he hardly saw the field for Penn State – he made 27 grabs including four for touchdowns while appearing in 40 games.But he’ll even admit his career didn’t match the trajectory he initially set during his freshman season in 2015. After signing with Penn State over scholarship offers from Maryland, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin among others, he made three starts, caught passes, carried the ball and returned kicks in his first year with the Nittany Lions.
“I put that on me,” Polk said. “I feel like I wasn’t there where I was supposed to be at that time. I feel like most of the time I wasn’t there mentally. I was physically there, but not mentally.”
And the reasoning is valid because Polk said while squatting in the weight room as a sophomore he developed a bulging disc in his back that cost him that season and nearly his career.
“I didn’t know if the pain was going to go away,” Polk said. “I had problems walking, sleeping and just sitting down was painful, so at that point, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I really want to put my body through this anymore and go through this,’ because I wanted to walk and do everything in life after football. I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair and that was the low point in my career.”
Contemplating to quit never crossed the line, though.
Polk said his father was there to caution him.
“I remember it really well,” Ed Polk, a former member of the Air Force, said. “Certainly, when you come into a program and you have great expectations and it gets derailed by injuries, it’s tough.
“But I kind of pressed him and said, ‘You have this gift. You don’t want to look later in life and say, what if I didn’t try or stick with it a little bit longer?’ I’ve always told him you never want to look back on life and regret it, so stick it out. But, if it got to the point where he said, ‘I definitely can’t do it,’ then walk away, but first make sure you’re at that point before you do it.”
Brandon used his father’s advice and leaned on teammates like Penn State linebacker Jake Cooper while dealing with the back injury and then saw more action in his redshirt junior year last season than the year before, recording two touchdown grabs.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about,” Ed said. “Penn State is obviously a great school, a great program and we had a phenomenal relationship with Coach [James] Franklin. They were really good with the parents and they always communicated. There was no ill will feeling whatsoever and even when Brandon decided to transfer, the coaches called us up and said, ‘Is there anything we can do to keep him here?’ But I think at that point, he really felt he’d be better off moving on.”
JMU wasn’t the only school to chase after Brandon Polk once his name was entered into the transfer portal.
He said FBS programs like Cal and Western Michigan reached out, but that it was Smith who was quickest to do so and JMU that offered all he was looking for while staying near home.
“And here I kind of feel like my freshman self again,” Polk said. “Where like I really enjoy playing football, practicing and the guys, and before I felt like at some point I just really, really lost interest in the love of football.”
His stiff arm to stymie a would-be tackler and sprint for a 60-yard touchdown against Towson last weekend in the Dukes’ 27-10 win over the Tigers is all the proof anyone needs to determine whether or not Polk still has all the potential he showed as a freshman in the Big Ten.
“Once he got out in the open, especially at our level, and it seems like at JMU’s level too, no one will catch him,” Pierce said before referencing and rattling off the time Polk set the Briar Woods record for longest touchdown run in school history with a 91-yard dash and then the 80-yard score he had against Potomac Falls.
“And that’s what stood out,” Pierce said. “Because I was sitting near the recruits on Saturday in the corner of the end zone on the home side near the 20-yard line in. And he caught the one bubble, made a move and the touchdown was right in front of where we were. But I’m watching this touchdown right in front of me and I’m like, ‘Wow, this does bring back some memories.’”
Polk said he’s enjoying the success he’s having in purple and the relationships he’s building with DiNucci, Stapleton, Dean, wide receiver Jake Brown and wide receivers coach Mike Shanahan.
“Something I always do is ask Ben or Coach Shanahan in the film room is how they see things,” Polk said. “Like how is [DiNucci] viewing things. What’s the read on this play? Who could get the ball versus what look? You’ve got to be prepared to get the ball at any moment, but it’s a little easier when you know if this guy blitzes, I’m getting the ball now.”
After Polk turned a quick catch into a 48-yard touchdown to push JMU to separate from Chattanooga in September, DiNucci said: “We knew he could burn a little bit when he got here. But I think that play right there was kind of like, ‘Whoa,’ because he split a few safeties and took that thing. But we were lacking that last year and didn’t have a guy that could really stretch the field vertically like that, so he’s been a huge help.”
And those types of highlight-reel plays have reinvigorated Polk’s hopes of an NFL future.
He’s earned chances to better JMU’s offense and in turn has improved his own chances at the possibility of playing on Sundays.
“What’s happening here has actually opened some doors back up for him,” Pierce said. “And it doesn’t make any difference about what level you play these days because if you have the capabilities, the NFL is going to find you and make sure they run you through the gauntlet to see if you can do it. But I think what’s happened here is he’s exposing himself in a positive way to the NFL scouts.”
Polk, though, is taking it one step at a time and not rushing any of this one season with the Dukes.
“I feel like it has put me on the map a little more,” Polk said. “But it’s not just me. It’s what the whole offense has been doing, because I promise you if we were 1-7 that no one would even care about what’s going on.
“But with the offense we have and what we’re doing on both sides of the ball, because you need offense, defense and special teams to click together to be one of those teams that goes to the national championship, it’s taken everybody.”