Penn State will host its annual spring scrimmage on Saturday, even if established stars like running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jason Cabinda are likely to be watching from the sidelines. However, that doesn’t mean there will be less for fans to see. A slew of players likely to be competing for and ultimately assuming important roles on the team this fall will see significant action, and this week on the Penn State Blog, we’ll be looking at the Top 5.
Today, we scout emerging receiver Juwan Johnson, the talk of spring camp.
What he did in 2016: The imposing wideout didn’t have the breakout season some predicted, but he did have two catches for 70 yards. He actually emerged as a pretty good special teams player, recording nine tackles.
Perhaps most importantly, though, he got the chance to watch how fellow receiver Chris Godwin went about his business, saying that Godwin’s example helped him become one of the biggest stars of camp this spring.
What he can show on Saturday: Well, anything less than an impressive Blue-White Game performance from Johnson might go down as a disappointment, considering how much buzz is surrounding him right now.
But, here’s the deal: Penn State has a deep and talented receiving corps, but there is playing time to be had for someone who grabs it. Especially if that someone is physically gifted enough to be a matchup problem for just about any cornerback in the Big Ten. Up close, Johnson looks even larger than his listed size, and it’s actually difficult to picture him moving on a football field like he can. He’s built like an NBA guard.
This spring was big for players like Johnson and fellow 6-foot-4 sophomore Irvin Charles, who should wind up seeing their playing time skyrocket in the fall assuming they take care of business. Neither have been consistent enough to warrant that kind of playing time until now, though by all accounts, that has changed for Johnson, who says the big difference for him this spring is that he has followed one good practice with a better one on a regular basis.
Laying an egg in the Blue-White Game would be OK for more established players, honestly. It won’t reflect well on Johnson, though. He has to finish strong.
Why is he important for 2017: Clearly, someone has to replace Godwin, in some form, as the go-to receiver for quarterback Trace McSorley. But, for one second, let’s try to forget how dynamic Godwin was at times. Let’s try to forget about the Rose Bowl heroics, or how big he came through in the most important games. Let’s try to forget even about his numbers.
What made Godwin so important to the Nittany Lions the last few years is that he was always available. Never struggled with consistency. Never had a real injury issue. Never played himself out of the lineup. And honestly, he’s the only receiver since Allen Robinson left that can really make that claim. As good as Mike Gesicki was last season, he was that bad in 2015. DeAndre Thompkins had some big moments last season, and some lousy ones. Charles had some big catches and plenty of drops. Saeed Blacknall dominated the Big Ten Championship Game, then couldn’t even get on the plane to Pasadena.
There is perhaps as much raw talent in this receiving corps as there is anywhere in the Big Ten. But eventually, having to figure out who is going to be the go-to guy in a given week, if nobody is establishing themselves in that role, will burn an offense. Penn State needs someone to establish some consistency, and to hear that Johnson has been able to do that in the spring has to be considered encouraging for the Lions.
How you’ll know he did his job: This should be relatively easy for fans to determine.
If Johnson is targeted often, and he catches the passes he has a legitimate chance to catch, and he can get open down the field, that will have to be considered a success, the kind of end to the kind of camp he needed at this point in his career. But he can no longer be the inconsistent player who couldn’t even find a snap or two on offense in most games last season. He came to the program with a lot of hype and hasn’t lived up to it yet, by his own admission. Now, he has a chance to turn it all around basically in a month’s worth of work.
It’s up to him, at this point, to make himself the man to beat for a starting job in August.
Juwan Johnson had a catch in last season’s loss to Pittsburgh. He didn’t have another for several months. He’ll be looking to make a much bigger impact in 2017. Associated Press photo.