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Penn State football: Juwan Johnson could declare for the 2019 NFL draft despite disappointing season

Juwan Johnson dropped six passes, missed four games and saw a 31-catch dip from last year to a frustrating, heckle-filled 2018. And yet, the Penn State wideout could turn pro.

Wait, what?

Yes, Johnson — a redshirt junior with lauded athleticism and preseason NFL buzz — is a candidate to declare early for the 2019 draft. Now, whether he does is unclear. Johnson smiled when asked about his future at Friday’s Citrus Bowl media day, shrugging off indirect, yet persistent questions about if he’s staying or going.

“I’m not trying to bring any attention to me or any other players who will probably be leaving or suggested to leave,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “You guys know the deal. I’m focused on Kentucky.”

But the fact that Johnson didn’t announce his intentions to come back for a fifth year on the spot implies that he’s focused on his future, too. Which would be understandable. Johnson, who graduated Saturday with a degree in telecommunications, is stuck in a weird predicament.

In 2017 the 225-pounder had 54 catches (tied for the team lead) and 701 receiving yards (second behind DaeSean Hamilton). Competing for targets with Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley — all of whom are now valued pass-catchers in the NFL — Johnson proved to be a reliable target for Trace McSorley.

This year, not so much. Early in the season, Johnson struggled to secure routine catches. And later, after suffering an unspecified injury at Indiana in October, one McSorley called “pretty significant,” the wideout could barely walk off the field. He finished the regular season with 23 catches for 339 yards and a touchdown.

Johnson said 2018 was “rough.” That’s putting it mildly for a guy who went No. 7 overall in a preseason 2019 mock draft by Sporting News.

At first glance at Johnson’s situation, you would assume he’d come back to Happy Valley and re-establish himself as one of the Big Ten’s best. But the Nittany Lions have depth and youth waiting in the wings at wideout. KJ Hamler took hold of the slot, true freshman Jahan Dotson emerged down the stretch, and fans have called for former five-star prospect Justin Shorter to see the field. Cam Sullivan-Brown, Daniel George, Mac Hippenhammer and 2019 commit John Dunmore are eying time, too.

So, does Johnson want to come back, fight for a starting spot and play with one of his best friends, quarterback Tommy Stevens? Or does he leave after the Citrus Bowl and get drafted?

Johnson is a projected late fourth-round or early fifth-round pick, according to Scouts Inc. and ESPN draft expert Steve Muench.

“I’d be surprised if he didn’t get drafted,” Muench told the CDT. “But he’s gone from a Day 2 guy with potential to move up — I mean, when people saw him last year, he was building momentum. You could see the flashes of a guy who could be an early-round pick. … But it’s the consistency with it.”

Whatever Johnson’s decision is, he has the support and encouragement of teammates and coaches. He has all year.

McSorley said when Johnson’s “out there playing confident, playing fast, I don’t think there is anyone who can cover him given his size, his speed, strength and ability.” Penn State head coach James Franklin said the wideout is “going to have a big bowl” and “going to have a really bright future.”

Whether that future is at Penn State, though, remains to be seen.

“It’s been a tough season, but you have to smile,” Johnson said. “The things that happened were meant for a reason, and there’s going to be positive coming out of it. It’s not all negative when things happen. Take it how it is, move on from it and keep going.”

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