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Great Expectations: Much Ado About Penn State's Juwan Johnson

by on May 18, 2017 9:00 PM

Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. —William Shakespeare (or, maybe, Josh Gattis)

Lately, there has been much ado about Juwan Johnson. Expectations are great.

Bobby Engram was born great.

The greatest receiver in Nittany Lion history, Engram had 167 catches for a school-record 3,026 yards, an 18.1-yard per-catch average and 31 touchdowns, also a school record.

Deon Butler achieved greatness.

A walk-on who began his Penn State career as defensive back, Butler was great at being consistent, with consecutive seasons of 37, 48, 47 and 47 catches for 691, 637, 633 and 810 yards.

Allen Robinson was a great talent.

In 2013, ARob had the greatest season ever by a Penn State receiver. He had 97 receptions for 1,432 yards (both are PSU records), grabbing 41.99% of all of Christian Hackenberg's completions that season. (His 77 catches in 2012 rank third-greatest in PSU history.)

Chris Godwin was great at the deep 50/50 ball, and had arguably the greatest quarter by a receiver in Penn State history.

In the 15 minutes that were the second quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl against USC, Godwin had seven catches for 113 yards, each of the receptions — for 13, 14, 29, 30, 7, 10 and 10 yards — going for a first down. Godwin added a 72-yard touchdown catch on Penn State's second play of the third quarter (the first was a 79-yard TD run by Saquon Barkley; watch its greatness here) and he finished with nine catches for 187 yards and two TDs.

But Godwin is gone.

RAMPING UP

However, the great expectations for the offense — powered by quarterback Trace McSorley and masterminded by Joe Moorhead — remain.

Beginning, interestingly enough, with Johnson.

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A redshirt sophomore from New Jersey, he was the fashionable "it" player of Penn State's spring. He won the Jim O'Hora award as the most improved offensive player. He earned daily praise from his teammates and coaches throughout spring drills. And in the weeks after the Blue-White Game — when he grabbed seven passes for 81 yards and a 15-yard score on the final play of the scrimmage — he has won the praise of media both near and far.

Great praise, in fact. Being thrust upon him, as it were, from:

Head coach James Franklin: "He just has taken a very mature approach, very aggressive approach, all off-season...I think we all know he has some special physical abilities, and it's all coming together for him right now."

McSorley: "For the team to see him doing that and to see it paying off on the field, I think that’s why you’re starting to hear his name more. You love seeing guys that put in all the work and it comes into fruition on the field. On top of that he’s big, fast, strong. He’s running routes clean, he’s getting separation. He’s just done a tremendous job in each period, continuing to get better.”

Sports Illustrated, which recently tabbed Johnson as one of the top eight players "poised for breakout seasons": "...the title of Trace McSorley’s go-to target is up for grabs. Consider Juwan Johnson a serious candidate...he’s drawing rave reviews for his progress this spring. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead described Johnson’s performance in spring practices as 'phenomenal'..."

GOOD AND GREAT

There are some good reasons for that great praise. Johnson has great size and strength, at 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds. He has great hands; they are large and, according to Franklin, they didn't drop a pass all spring.

He has a great smile, great hair and a great yet truly humble attitude off the field. Witness his great Twitter bio (@ju_heard): You'll see Christ that lives in me. WR at PSU. Praying that you prosper. Eager Season. Joshua 3:5. He can be great in the classroom, too — he earned Academic All-Big Ten honors last season.

Johnson also had a great receiving average of 35 yards per catch in 2016. But only two catches. Total. (One reception was for 27 yards on the final scoring drive against Pitt, the first reception of his career; the other went for 43 yards against Michigan State.) He showed flashes of greatness on special teams, ranking No. 2 on the squad with nine tackles (8 kickoff, 1 punt). He blocked a punt in the rain and sleet at Rutgers.

So, yes, he has great potential for 2017.

What he won't have in reality, though, is a great burden. Unless it comes from within. Moorhead has too many other options. Namely, Saaed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton. And, maybe, Irv Charles and Brandon Polk.

SEEING GREATNESS IN SAEED

For as great as folks expect Johnson to be in 2017, it is reasonable to expect that Blacknall, especially, will be even better. Here's why:

Blacknall was great on Dec. 3, 2016, in Lucas Oil Stadium when the pressure was...um...great. It's just that we haven't seen him since. First, he missed the Rose Bowl due to a suspension. Then, he missed the Blue-White Game.

So, by the time Penn State takes the field on Sept. 2, it will have been 273 days since we've had a Saaed sighting. Let's flash back to that December Big Ten title game in Indy, when Penn State trailed Wisconsin 21-0 before Blacknall caught his first pass. Then, Blacknall and McSorley went to work. On Penn State's next five drives, Blacknall caught five passes for 144 yards, four first downs and ending two of those drives with touchdowns of 40 and 70 yards.

Blacknall looked great.

Just like he did as a freshman in 2014, when he made a leaping clutch fourth-quarter 24-yard touchdown catch against Ohio State. And like he did as a sophomore for a 25-yard TD vs. Michigan. Overall, Blacknall has 34 career catches for 707 yards, for a whopping 20.8-yard average, to go with his five touchdowns. In 2016, he averaged 23.1 yards on 15 catches in only nine games. As he heads into his senior season, Blacknall brings both speed (sub-4.4 40) and size (6-3, 212 and still growing, based on seeing him a few weeks ago) to the Nittany Lions' passing game.

Let's not discount Hamilton or Thompkins either. Hamilton is a three-year starter, and with 38 starts to his name, he could reach the coveted half-century mark in 2017. It's also very possible he'll leave Penn State ranked No. 1 as the school's all-time receptions leader. He has 161, tied for fourth with Derrick Williams. Engram (167) and Robinson (177) are next. Hamilton is 19 catches from passing Butler (179) at the top.

Thompkins is more of a wild card. He enters his junior season with 33 career catches for 473 yards. In 2016, he had 27 receptions for 440 yards, while averaging an impressive 16.3 yards per catch. Over Penn State's final nine games, however, he had just nine catches and in the Rose Bowl he had only two receptions for nine yards. (For his part, Hamilton was shut out by USC.) 

All told, the trio of Hamilton-Blacknall-Thompkins enters 2017 with a combined 225 catches for 3,165 yards and 15 TDs. Very good, if not great numbers. (This is what great looks like: Entering their senior season in 2008, the trio of Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood — coached their entire careers by Mike McQueary — had a combined 366 catches for 4,597 yards, and 27 touchdowns.)

NO JOSHING

The 2017 group is a very good corps, to be sure. Gattis, Penn State's fourth-year wide receivers coach mentioned at the top of this piece, understands the challenges that come with a deep set of talented receivers.

"It creates an environment where in practice each week that every rep is important, because those reps determine how much you’re going to play that week," is how Gattis explained it to me in the run-up to the Rose Bowl. "I'm a big believer in how you practice dictates how much you’re going to play that week. There are no game-day players in our program. You earn everything you get. We have the luxury of some older guys who have played a lot of football, plus a mix of young guys who are just as talented who are going to have as big of an impact as the older guys."

Johnson can't be categorized as one of the younger guys any more. In some ways, as a junior entering his redshirt sophomore season, he already has some catching up to do. At least compared to the truly all-time greats.

Engram had four catches as a true freshman in 1991, did not play football the next season, then had a monster sophomore year: 48 catches for 873 yards, a 18.2-yard average, with 18 TDs. Same for ARob. After three catches as a true freshman, Robinson had a sophomore season of 77 receptions, 1,013 yards and 11 TDs. And Hamilton, after totally missing his freshman season with a nagging wrist injury in 2013, made 82 catches for 899 yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, his first season on the field.

Such success is still possible for Johnson. In a great way?

Maybe. He, like the rest of us, is eager to find out. The answer is not in the stars, but in himself.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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