Throughout last spring and summer, there was a feeling among Penn State beat reporters that redshirt junior Juwan Johnson was poised for a breakout season. The athletic 6-foot-4, 230-pound receiver had patiently waited for his opportunity to become a go-to pass catcher in the offense, behind current NFL talents such as Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki.
And there was some thought that if Johnson lived up to expectations, he would be in position to bypass his final year of eligibility to join his former teammates in the league.
Well, his season fell well short of expectations. Heading into PSU’s Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup with Kentucky, Johnson ranks third on the team with 23 catches for 339 yards and just one touchdown. That’s 21 fewer receptions than he had in 2017. Drops were an issue for much of this year. Then late in the season, he missed three full games and most of a fourth with an undisclosed injury.
What does his future hold now? At Penn State’s bowl media day Friday, a once-again-healthy Johnson was asked if he had a decision to make about an early exit to the NFL.
“We’re just focused on Kentucky right now,” he replied with a smile. “I’m not trying to bring any attention to me or any other players who probably will be leaving or (it’s been) suggested to leave. Just sort of focusing on Kentucky … because once I start looking at (an NFL decision), you sort of get sidetracked and it starts a domino effect.”
You can see him addressing the topic in the video at the top of this page.
Johnson, who majored in telecommunications with a minor in theatre, graduated from Penn State Saturday. Asked if that might play a role in any decision he may or may not have, the 22-year-old again sidestepped the question.
“Like I said before, I’m focused on Kentucky right now,” he said, smiling once again. “You kind of already know the deal. We’re just focused on Kentucky and trying to get this win.”
A healthy, productive Johnson would go a long way toward helping the No. 12 Nittany Lions secure a victory over the No. 14 Wildcats. PSU finished the season starting two players with freshman eligibility at receiver (KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson), and another rookie at tight end (Pat Freiermuth). In all, nine different players with freshman eligibility caught passes for PSU in the regular season.
While he was injured, Johnson said he focused on helping the young pass catchers improve.
“It was really hard not being on the field,” he explained. “Sitting on the sideline was very tough for me, because I always want to be on the field and be competitive and stuff like that. But I try not to harp on that too much. It was more of a thing for me to step back and be more of a leader. That was a thing this year that I had to be, was be a leader and step into a different view. It was definitely hard for me to adjust to and hard to accept.
“But it was better for me — and also better for my teammates and coaches to rely on me — that me being on the sideline didn’t mean I had exited from the team,” he added. “It was effective me being on the sideline just as much as it was on the field.”
Johnson said he heard the offseason buzz about leaving early for the NFL.
“Of course some stuff was said to me,” he said. “But you know me — I was always focused on trying to do whatever I could for the season.”
He began the year with what turned out to be a season-high six catches for 67 yards in the opener against Appalachian State. But inconsistent play prevented him from ever becoming the primary target everyone expected him to be. His lone TD came in a road blowout of Illinois. Later in the season, the injury hit.
Always a glass-half-full guy, PSU coach James Franklin took solace in the way his veteran wideout handled the difficult regular season.
“(He) obviously faced a little bit of adversity this year,” Franklin said. “I think it’s a positive. That’s kind of how we view things like that. You embrace it. He’s going to grow from this. He’s going to learn from this, not only as a football player but as a man. It’s no different than any other adversity or challenge you face — if you approach it with the right mind-set, you’ll grow from it. You’ll probably grow more than you would through success or things going easy.
“Juwan has been an unbelievable teammate since he’s arrived on campus,” the coach added. “He’s always been a guy that’s invested a great deal. I think the team sees that.”
Turns out he was a good student, too, as he graduated in three and a half years.
“That is very important, to be honest,” Johnson said the day before he attended his graduation ceremony. “… Just coming here — a prestigious university — and getting that degree is gonna be humbling for me. It’s going to be quite the moment for me and also my mother, knowing that she was able to have three boys and that they (have) all graduated. So that is a credit to her and a credit to my parents.”
Franklin said Johnson is “healthy, obviously, now” and that the “quarterbacks are excited to throw the ball to him. He did some really good things at the end of the year.”
Also, “I think he’s going to have a big bowl game. I think he’s going to have a great off-season. I think he’s going to have a really bright future.”
For his part, Johnson is looking forward to the Citrus Bowl. Whether or not it’s his last game as a Nittany Lion remains to be seen. Whatever the next year may hold, he is already starting to feel his college football mortality.
“It’s another game to go out there and have fun and play,” Johnson said. “You don’t have a lot of opportunities. We’re sort of toward that end where I’m a junior/senior. I don’t have many opportunities left, so I’m just going in there, having fun and letting loose.”