At the start of 2017, questions surrounded the Nittany Lions on who was going to be the top wide receiver as Chris Godwin left early for the NFL. Penn State returned the Big Ten’s top quarterback in Trace McSorley, but he turned to Godwin whenever he needed a big play. Star running back Saquon Barkley was still cutting and juking past opponents on his way to 16 rushing touchdowns and he caught 47 passes for 594 yards to help McSorley in the passing game.
DaeSean Hamilton led the Nittany Lions in yards with 747, while John Mackey Award finalist Mike Gesicki paced the team in receptions and touchdowns with 51 and nine, respectively. Big time production from both of those players would normally be enough for an offense to succeed, but Penn State needed a steady presence on the outside and James Franklin found his man in Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore from Glassboro, New Jersey entered the season with a good amount of hype as Franklin said he was one of the team’s top performers during the spring. His 6’4″ frame allowed for McSorley to throw passes up high as opposing defensive backs struggled stopping him in the air. Johnson’s 48 receptions for 635 yards were good for second on the team, trailing Hamilton in both categories.
Johnson only caught one touchdown all year, but it was probably the Nittany Lions’ most important of the season as he caught the game winner against Iowa. The lack of touchdowns for Johnson might seem that he did not have an important role, but senior tight end Gesicki was targeted quite frequently in the red zone. In fact, Johnson rarely got any targets when the Nittany Lions got the ball down there as the running game was very productive on the goal line.
His importance over the middle of the field was huge as he caught numerous receptions over the middle to extend the drive against Iowa. Johnson’s wide catch radius made him an almost near miss target as Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson was unable to stop him. His route running is impressive for a guy as big as him and can make the catches on balls thrown by his feet.
The one problem for Johnson is his inconsistency as he went through plenty of games without making an impact as he just disappeared into the background. The two losses for the Nittany Lions are great examples of that as he recorded only five catches for 56 yards. A player of his caliber should not disappear in his team’s biggest games, but Ohio State and Michigan State were not the only teams he failed to show up. Johnson caught only one pass for four yards against Pittsburgh and had only two receptions the next week.
While he followed those two showings with a great performance against Iowa, his absences for large stretches of time have to end if he wants to be considered one of the top receivers in the conference. Johnson will build on his impressive sophomore campaign, but needs to be more consistent for Penn State to succeed next season.