ORLANDO, Fla. –– One minute, Juwan Johnson answered questions about leaving a year early for the NFL. The next, he was bombarded with questions about whether he’s considered changing positions or switching numbers.
As Penn State prepares for its final game of the season, Johnson finds himself in a strange predicament.
On one hand, the 6-foot-4 224-pound redshirt junior receiver has a telecommunications degree in hand and NFL ambitions. On the other, he hasn’t looked anything like the kind of receiver that Sporting News’ Eric Galko pegged as the No. 7 overall pick in a mock draft back in May.
Johnson dropped the ball this season, both literally and figuratively.
He’s battled the injury bug, his draft stock has tanked, and he heads into the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky listed as a backup on the depth chart.
But, both he and James Franklin remain hopeful that better days lie ahead.
“I feel pretty good right now,” the New Jersey native told reporters shortly after arriving in Orlando, admitting that he finally feels 100 percent healthy. “Everything’s good. Everything’s intact. Everything’s healed up. I’m ready to go out and catch some passes.”
Added Franklin: “Our quarterbacks are excited to throw the ball to him. He did some really good things at the end of the year. [We’re] excited about what he’s going to do.”
Johnson hauled in two catches for 46 yards in the Nittany Lions’ regular season finale after missing four games due to a lower-body injury suffered against Indiana.
That kind of statline probably would’ve been considered a disappointment in August given the fact that just about everyone expected a breakout season following a 54-reception, 701-yard campaign that included a last-second touchdown, which helped Penn State avoid a season-altering upset at Iowa. But it’s a start.
“Things like this happen,” Johnson said. “It happens in the NFL, it happens even in little league.”
He’s taken full note of the messages –– both bad and good –– directed his way on social media, saying that they motivate him but don’t necessarily make him mad.
“[Johnson] 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,” he continued. “If you approach it with the right mindset, 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. He’s always been a guy that’s invested a great deal. I think the team sees that.”
And while Johnson has one final chance to change the narrative before staying put in Happy Valley for a fifth year or embarking upon a professional dream, he acknowledges that “it’s not really about me.”
“I know before with me struggling and not being out there that people were wondering what happened,” Johnson said, “but ultimately, it’s not really about me, it’s about my teammates and me going out there and playing for them.”
It’s not like his talent has suddenly disappeared, either.
Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House mentioned him in the same breath as Miles Sanders and KJ Hamler when describing the challenges that the Nittany Lions present his defensive group, and since he possesses the kind of measurables that NFL teams drool over, Johnson would probably still hear his name called if he were to declare for the draft.
“I think he’s going to have a big bowl game,” Franklin said. “I think he’s going to have a great offseason. I think he’s going to have a really bright future.”