Chris Godwin pulled his friend Juwan Johnson aside at Harrisburg International Airport minutes after stepping off Penn State’s charter flight back from the Rose Bowl. A herd of fans cheered and welcomed the Nittany Lions back to Pennsylvania, as Godwin found a quiet spot to chat.
Johnson knew what was coming.
“It’s your time to be up,” Godwin told Johnson on Jan. 3. “I’m going to leave.”
Two days later, Godwin declared for the NFL draft. After recording 187 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a signature performance against Southern California, he took that moment in Harrisburg to pass the torch to Johnson.
To this point, the redshirt sophomore hasn’t let him down.
Johnson is the star of spring ball, garnering praise from Penn State coaches and teammates alike for his work ethic, acrobatic catches and everything in-between. The New Jersey native — who redshirted in 2015 and got lost in a deep wide receiver group last season — is primed to break out in 2017 with his imposing 6-foot-4 frame and a game that mirrors Godwin’s.
After the brief talk with his mentor and friend, Johnson knew — and was ready for — what lay ahead.
“It was time for me to turn the switch on,” Johnson said Monday. “It was my time to step up and take that role and succeed in that role. It was my time to help take this offense to the next level.”
When you put it up in his direction, it’s almost a gimme that he’s going to come down with it.
Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki
After boasting more special-teams tackles (9) last season than catches (2), Johnson now figures to start on the outside by assuming Godwin’s spot. It’s been one giant step forward after another for Johnson, who said he’s put in more offseason work than ever before.
He has especially focused on his live ball skills by training on the jugs machine and, more importantly, repeatedly practicing securing catches in full pads. Even Johnson labeled his dramatic progress, his emergence in spring camp, as “an adventure.”
“It surprised me,” Johnson said, smiling in an office in the Lasch Football Building. “It’s totally different from last season, and last season was really only a few months ago. It’s a big transition.”
His improvements haven’t gone unnoticed. Penn State head coach James Franklin has raved about Johnson’s maturity and “aggressive approach,” and his teammates have echoed that sentiment.
“When you put it up in his direction, it’s almost a gimme that he’s going to come down with it,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said. “He’s been running great routes to get open, but even when he’s covered, he’s still open.”
“He’s always in the weight room,” added quarterback Trace McSorley, who hosted Johnson on his official visit three years ago. “Every time you walk through he’s stretching or doing something to get himself better. I think for the team to see him doing that, to see it paying off on the field, I think that’s why you’re starting to hear his name more and more.”
Johnson appreciates the kind words, no doubt. But he’s not giving in to the hype either.
Johnson has been through this type of thing before. In high school, as a four-star prospect who participated in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the highly touted wideout was compared to former Detroit Lions superstar Calvin Johnson.
“Megatron” was Johnson’s favorite wideout to watch, so he took the compliment. “But at the same time,” he said, “it was attention I didn’t need in high school.”
Johnson let that comparison marinate in his head and affect the way he played, causing him to make a change — as he no longer reads articles about himself or considers what people have to say on Twitter.
Johnson’s trying to keep a low-profile as he navigates an attention-grabbing spring.
“You just have to channel some of that stuff out,” Johnson said. “You have to have your head above water.”
Johnson’s ultimate goal is to join Godwin in the NFL, but he has yet to set any expectations for the 2017 season. After he showcases his progress to thousands at the Blue-White Game on Saturday, he’ll sit down with Franklin and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis to discuss his role in Penn State’s 2017 offense.
Judging by what Franklin has said all spring, that conversation is sure to be a positive one.
“He’s really just kind of made a significant jump from the end of the season to now,” the head coach said. “It’s been kind of him identifying what his strengths and weaknesses are, and saying, ‘I’m going to work hard at these areas and make those weaknesses strengths.’
“I think we all know he has some special physical abilities, and it’s all coming together for him right now.”
Johnson said he wasn’t mature enough to contribute as a true freshman and didn’t play nearly as much on offense as he thought he would in 2016.
But as Godwin told him nearly four months ago in Harrisburg, Johnson’s opportunity is now.
Only time will tell what he makes of it.
“I’m still learning,” Johnson said, “and I haven’t reached my peak.”