STATE COLLEGE – Juwan Johnson just kept smiling, answering all the tough questions about his disappointing season as best he could and trying to keep things in perspective.
No Penn State player, in fact, had a more disappointing season than Johnson, based on expectations entering the year compared to actual results.
Despite the wide receiver’s struggles, one question remains about Johnson. And it’s one he didn’t want to answer just yet on Friday.
Will he enter the NFL draft a year early?
“You guys know the deal,” Johnson coyly said with a smile. “I’m focused on Kentucky.”
The Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl could be Johnson’s final game at PSU, if he decides to turn pro.
But why would the junior decide to declare for the draft after his rough 2018 season? He had only 23 catches for 339 yards and one TD, compared to 54 catches for 701 yards and one TD last year. He also dropped about 10 passes and missed three games with a lower body injury.
Johnson is quite the physical specimen, however, at 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds, plus he has good speed. He entered the season very highly regarded by draft experts, and it’s possible NFL teams would overlook the drops if he’s invited to the combine and posts impressive numbers.
Johnson is rated the No. 27 receiver available for the draft by Draft Tek, and his stock could go up sharply with excellent workouts. He’s probably in line to be a fifth-round pick or so now, but could rise depending on those workouts.
Johnson graduated on Saturday, so having already earned a degree could factor into his draft decision.
Johnson, of course, won’t get into any of that right now. Not until after the bowl game. Still, he has great confidence in himself and his abilities, which could lead to an early exit for the NFL.
Asked how good he can be, Johnson smiled and said, “You guys will see. You guys will see.”
If Johnson returns to Penn State next season, he could be a major factor in the offense. Then again, the Nittany Lions will have KJ Hamler, their best receiver this year, back, as well as Jahan Dotson and heralded recruit Justin Shorter, who had just one catch in four games this season.
The Lions also are losing quarterback Trace McSorley and will turn to Tommy Stevens, who will have to prove himself as a passing quarterback.
Given all that, there are no guarantees Johnson will have a huge season if he returns to PSU in 2019.
He was expected to have a huge season this year, but that never materialized.
“Yeah, it’s been a tough season, but overall you have to smile at the end,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day it’s not as bad as it seems. Someone’s situation is always worse than mine.
“So I kind of look at it as a positive light that the things that happened were meant for a reason, and there’s going to be positive come out of it. It’s not always a negative when things happen.”
Johnson was heavily criticized by fans and media this year, and was asked if he was able to avoid seeing all of that.
“You control what you see,” he said. “So ultimately just kind of blocking out the negative. Of course, people are going to say what they want to say. That’s just how it is. But I control what I see. So ultimately seeing the positive things and sort of just filtering out the negatives and doing what I can to be around things that are positive.”
Johnson is hardly the first highly regarded PSU player to struggle catching the ball. It happened to tight end Mike Gesicki a few years back, and DaeSean Hamilton infamously dropped a huge pass in the 2016 game at Pitt that played a part in the Lions losing.
Both of those guys rebounded extremely well at Penn State and are now in the NFL. Both also have reached out to Johnson this year to help him keep his spirits up.
“They all went through the same thing,” Johnson said. “So those guys, them helping me get through things like this sort of helped me out a lot.
“Talking to those guys, they definitely uplifted me, definitely motivated me to be a better player, just a better person,” he added. “Things like this happen. It happens in the NFL, happens in Little League, in college. It happens. The main thing about it is just me keeping my head straight.”
Johnson said he’s now 100 percent and is looking forward to being fully healthy for the Citrus Bowl.
“I think he’s going to have a big bowl game,” coach James Franklin said. “I think he’s going to have a great offseason. I think he’s going to have a really bright future.
“(He) obviously faced a little bit of adversity this year. 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.”
Franklin also spoke at length about one part of football — and life — that’s hard for some young people to understand.
So many players believe that if they just work hard, they’re guaranteed to have success. But it doesn’t always work that way.
“What’s also interesting is when you’re young, you think life is fair,” Franklin said. “If I invest this, then I should get an immediate return on my investment. But it doesn’t work like that. Whether it’s the big man upstairs or whether it’s the game of football, (is) kind of what we talk about.
“If you love the game, and if you respect the game, and if you invest in the game, it will pay back. The game respects people that view it the right way and treat it as such. I believe in that. I believe that in the game of football, I believe that in life, that it’s going to happen. When it happens and how it happens, I’m not sure. But I think Juwan is a great example of that.”‘
A strong showing in the bowl game could help Johnson’s NFL stock, but in his particular case because he struggled so much this season, his pre-draft workouts would determine his draft fate if he turns pro.
“To be honest, I’m not too honed on my performance (in the bowl),” Johnson said. “I think I’ve been doing that a lot this year, and I think it’s not too much performance. I think it’s just me having fun with it, because I feel like when you have fun with it, your performance will show for it.”