The Curious Case of Juwan Johnson

By Nick Polak on October 3, 2018 at 8:30 am
Sep 29, 2018; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Juwan Johnson (84) makes a catch during the first quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As we began looking ahead at the 2018 season this past summer, there were a lot of questions surrounding what the starting lineup would look like in various spots. One of the spots that was not up for grabs was Juwan Johnson's role as the clear-cut number one receiver in the offense.

Penn State needs their chain mover in the second half of the season. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

After a very productive 2017 season in which he caught 54 passes for 701 yards and a touchdown, Johnson was expected to take the next step as the focal point of the Penn State passing attack that was losing DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, and Saeed Blacknall. He clearly had developed a good bit of chemistry with quarterback Trace McSorley, and it was looking every bit like he was about to break out in a big way (he even was a frequent name mentioned in "way-too-early" NFL mock drafts).

Fast forward to today, and one could see that Johnson's statistical start to the year has been decent. So far he's totaled 17 receptions for 202 yards and a touchdown. Hardly world-beating numbers, but considering how the Nittany Lions have leaned on the run game in 2018, a nice line to start the season.

Of course, there is more than the statistics aren't showing you on the surface. Johnson is as naturally talented and physically gifted as any receiver in the country. He's shown flashes of absolute brilliance that have reminded Penn State fans everywhere of his massive potential, like this.

But, as you know, it hasn't been all roses for No. 84, as he has been stricken by a wicked case of the drops to start the season. Of the balls I have determined catchable through the first five games of the season (uncontested, on-target, hands on the ball), Johnson has already accounted for seven drops (though one was a tough call, since he met the criteria for a drop, but wasn't quite ready for the pass out of his break).

It's an issue that Johnson himself, at least publicly, doesn't seem too worried about. It is one, however, that the team desperately needs to figure out before hitting the final stretch of games after the bye week.

Trace McSorley and the passing game as a whole have been far less imposing than the past two years. A big reason for that is inconsistency from the wide receiver corps. Johnson is far from the only one to drop a pass this year (there have been 18 total), but he is the unquestioned leader in that position room. If he can turn things around and become a reliable, consistent target for McSorley, that could be the mental turnaround the group needs to help their quarterback shine.

With the team now in a situation where they need to run the table in order to even have an outside shot at qualifying for the College Football Playoff, they'll need the offense to be firing on all cylinders. From the second they step on the field against Michigan State, to the second they leave the field for the final time in 2018, Juwan Johnson has the opportunity to be a massive piece of that puzzle. Hopefully, he's able to follow through.

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