Juwan Johnson stroked his black beard and offered a smile when asked about the near and distant future. The imposing Penn State receiver, showing off Dez Bryant-esque arms in a cut-off t-shirt sitting in a Lasch Building office in mid-May, is 100 days away from a season that could see him become the Big Ten's best pass-catcher and a top-tier NFL draft prospect.
Thirteen months ago, Johnson sat in the same chair as the star of spring, the buzz of camp, the name on everyone's lips. Now, following a breakout campaign, the 6-foot-4 target is already a projected 2019 first-round pick. And with Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton off to the NFL, Johnson is ready to be Trace McSorley's No. 1 option in 2018.
"When we need it the most, I want to be that guy to make the play," Johnson told the Centre Daily Times, leaning forward in his seat in anticipation. "It's just the mindset I've always had. I can make that play. Not being cocky, just being confident about it, but I can make that. Just give me the ball, and you'll see. Run to my side, and I'll pick up the block, and you'll get those yards. Since I was young, I believed I could do anything."
And now he may be tasked to do everything. Well, maybe not everything, but close to it.
Entering this season, Penn State's statistical losses are apparent, as is the forfeiture of familiarity. Between Barkley, Gesicki, Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall, the Nittany Lions lose 162 receptions, 2,111 yards and 21 touchdowns from last season. Penn State is one of only two teams in college football, joining Miami, to have a running back, wide receiver and tight end all selected in the 2018 NFL draft.
Along with Johnson, the Nittany Lions return senior wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins and welcome heir apparent running back Miles Sanders into the fold. But outside of that, there are question marks on offense. Can long-time contributor Brandon Polk step into a more prominent role? Will K.J. Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer's April hype translate into fall success? Who will start at tight end?
With several absences and uncertainty over how to fill them, Johnson — now fully healthy after a "tweaked" left foot injury kept him out of spring practice — figures to become a stabilizer of sorts, someone McSorley and new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne can lean on. With more than 60 percent of the team's receptions and yards gone from a year ago, all eyes are on the confident New Jersey native.
"This is something he's really been looking forward to," said George Johnson, Juwan's brother and a defensive end for the New Orleans Saints. "Since day one when he walked on campus, he's been ready to be the No. 1 guy."
Johnson, 30, watched his brother blossom before the budding star ever stepped foot in Beaver Stadium. In high school, the NFL pass-rusher worked out in his family's Glassboro backyard, and Juwan — nine years his junior — would join. Reaction training, tackling tutorials, catching exercises. You name it, and the Johnson brothers drilled it.
To make sure his little brother applied the lessons learned, George showed up to Juwan's Pop Warner games with a keen eye. What he saw was a 7-year-old stud.
"He caught on so fast and became so good so quickly that people started really relying on him a lot to score touchdowns, get yards and make tackles," the New Orleans Saint said. "At an early age, shouldering the load was something he learned to do."
When he reached high school, Johnson didn't have to carry that same burden, at least initially. Glassboro was led by running back Corey Clement, a future Wisconsin star and Philadelphia Eagles touchdown-nabber in Super Bowl XLII. Still, Bulldogs coach Mark Maccarone utilized the gifted athlete from the get-go.
In the 2011 South Jersey Group 1 championship game, Glassboro faced Pennsville, which featured a spread offense. Maccarone tossed Johnson on the field as an extra defensive back, hoping the inexperienced but promising freshman would make an impact. Johnson nabbed three interceptions in the first half, housing one of them for a 99-yard touchdown.
"That's when you take a step back as a coach and go, 'Oh, okay. We have something here,'" Maccarone said. "You knew he was going to be what he has become."
What Johnson has become is a burgeoning, bullying ball-hawk, the type of receiver defensive coordinators shadow with a safety and still cross their fingers.
After redshirting in 2015 and contributing on special teams during Penn State's Big Ten title run a year later, Johnson transformed into a persistent presence in Penn State's 2017 passing attack. He hauled in 48 catches for 635 yards, averaging 13.2 yards per catch. The big body also blocked better than any wideout on the field.
One glaring weakness on Johnson's 2017 resume? He found the end zone just once.
"It was a solid touchdown," the wideout said with a grin, referencing his SportsCenter-worthy, walk-off scoring snag at Iowa. "But it's weird. People think I had more than that."
For someone as involved in the offense as he was, with at least four catches in eight of 13 games, it is somewhat surprising. But Johnson understands that when first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks are out there running routes, it can be tough. "You can't spread the ball out on one play to every guy," the wideout noted.
Luckily for Johnson and his touchdown total, that won't be an issue in 2018. Aided by a strong finish to last season (312 yards in his final four contests), the expectations surrounding the 229-pound mismatch are soaring.
A week after April's NFL draft concluded, Eric Galko of the Sporting News released a way-too-early 2019 mock draft. Johnson was a first-round pick — at No. 7 overall. Galko, the owner of NFL consulting service Optimum Scouting, said he has spoken with multiple teams interested in Johnson over the last 18 months.
"Juwan's a guy we've had our eye on for a long time," Galko said. "While the mock draft isn't going to be totally accurate in the preseason, that's the kind of talent that we expect. And teams I've talked to expect that kind of talent out of him. ...The sky's the limit."
According to Galko, what Johnson needs to work on entering 2018 is all "nuance-based." Working through bump-and-run coverage, adjusting better downfield. "But it's all there," the scout said. "He really has that potential, that ceiling to be one of the NFL's best receivers."
Thing is, that doesn't come as a surprise to Juwan's brother, George. Nor does it to Johnson's high school coach, Maccarone. Both men fully expected Johnson — the kid they watched flourish in front of their very eyes — to eventually play on Sundays. They saw what Galko sees, what NFL scouts and executives see.
For Johnson, this hype is kind of fun. What college player doesn't want to see their name in the first round of an NFL mock draft? But Johnson knows that nothing is guaranteed, especially in the spring. Nothing was guaranteed last April when he was the talk of Happy Valley. Despite the buzz and buildup, Johnson had to prove himself — and he knows he needs to yet again.
He doesn't have any crazy personal goals in mind for 2018. Of course, he wants to score more than one touchdown this go-around. "I hope to break that in, like, a game," he said with a laugh. But nothing unattainable on the docket, no program records to get obsessed over.
Instead, he wants to be the best version of himself, on and off the field. He wants to be a reliable teammate, someone who nurtures the mantra of work ethic established in Penn State's wideout room. Johnson is taking Hamler, Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown under his wing, showing them the ropes like Hamilton did for him years ago.
A month ago, Hamler — this spring's Juwan Johnson — came to the redshirt junior asking for advice on how to handle the hype. Johnson told him, "You can't settle. You have to keep going. Make a name for yourself."
In more ways than one, Johnson did that himself in 2017. And as a result, he has an opportunity few in college football have in 2018: Be the No. 1 option for a Heisman-caliber quarterback.
Don't expect Johnson to blow his chance.
"My brother always told me, 'Don't forget that dog that's in you. Your opportunity is going to come,'" Johnson said, rubbing his hands together with a smile. "That's pretty much what happened. ...What I need to do to keep improving is keep moving forward."