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Penn State Football: Johnson Struggling Early, But History Points To Patience Being The Best Solution

by on September 18, 2018 3:00 PM

If there was a lesson to glean from Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton, it's that careers take time.

Eligibility exhausted, both left State College this offseason for the NFL, both among the best to have ever played their respective positions at Penn State.

It's well documented that wasn't always the fact. Gesicki's early career was a landmine of moments he would like to forget, drops he wished he could erase. By the time his career turned around he would laugh about the past, simply saying "You know" when asked about a specific moment or two he would like to have back.

For Hamilton it was a freshman year surged matched by a mid-career slump only compounded by a drop against Pittsburgh during the Nittany Lions' 2016 comeback surge late in the game. It was a drop that by his own admission haunted him the entire season, finally flushed from the system during the Big Ten championship game months later.

When it was all said and done both had experienced the lowest of lows and some of the highest of the highs.

Which brings the Nittany Lions to the present day and an early season search to reinvigorate receiver Juwan Johnson, a 6-foor-4 ball of muscle and potential who looked destined to be one of Trace McSorley's primary targets in 2018 in a post-Barkley world.

It was something even Johnson quietly admitted with a smile following a 66-3 mauling of Maryland in College Park last season. Standing outside the visiting locker room Johnson leaned against the wall, refusing to look forward, but knowing what lay ahead.

"I don't really think about it," Johnson said in 2017 about his assumed role in 2018, through a telling smile at the time. "That's something Coach Franklin will determine. We've just got to focus on the bowl game."

"It helped my confidence a lot," Johnson said of his season at the time. He would finish the year with 54 catches for and 701 yards, his lone touchdown the game winner against Iowa. "Just building that trust in myself that I can make the big plays. I just have to do what I need to do for the team. That's making plays, making blocks, helping young guys out either way just being a leader. There are things you've got to do to step up."

Fast-forward and so far Johnson's season has not gone as planned. He has eight receptions on 18 targets, and six of those catches came in Penn State's season-opening game. In the past eight quarters the tallest of the Nittany Lions has two catches on seven targets. The assumed star has looked disengaged, even disinterested at times, an unexpected turn of events for a player who is otherwise far too talented for such a turn of events.

"It's awesome," McSorley said of Johnson's size last season. "His size his strength and his ability is really something that it's difficult for corners to cover. So having him, being able to be a deep threat as well as be a great possession guy, make catches, break tackles, gain yardage for us. Having him as a receiver is awesome."

Penn State has largely adapted well to Johnson's early slump. Brandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins and KJ Hamler have all proven to be more than capable, and in fairness also prone to oddly-timed drops. But without Johnson in the mix the grouping feels incomplete.

It's a challenge that James Franklin and his staff are charged with addressing as Big Ten play begins. The Nittany Lions are a vastly better team when Johnson is a part of the equation, but for a myriad of reasons that piece of the puzzle has yet to click.

So how do you get a player out of a funk?

"I think it depends on the kid," Franklin said on Tuesday. "That's where it's an art, not a science of knowing that kid and what he needs. And I think you guys that come to practice see, I have a very different approach. You guys don't get to see a whole lot of this. But I'm a very different approach on game day than I do on Saturdays. I'm pretty aggressive in practice. And on Saturdays I'm pretty aggressive when it comes to positive things, not when it comes to negative things."

"So for us I would probably say we spend more time focused on the positive of what we want them to do coaching from the affirmative rather than screaming what you don't want them to do."

 "It's really different for different kids. And part of it is, is it a confidence issue? Is it an effort issue? Is it a focus issue? What is it? And all those different things, experience, what the issue is is going to determine how you correct it. What that guy's personality traits are. Those types of things."

Trust as a coach is inherently a balance between belief and reality. Johnson will have to pull himself out of the funk as much as anyone will have to coach him out of it. But as Gesicki and Hamilton proved, sometimes your coaches having faith in you helps you have faith in yourself.

"I’ve got all the faith in the world in Brandon Polk, Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins," Franklin said after Penn State's win over Kent State last Saturday. "Those guys are big-time players. So the way we are going to deal with it is keep coaching hard, keep loving them hard, and that will take care of itself."

And if history is any indication, it will.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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