UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Juwan Johnson burst onto the college football scene with his walk-off touchdown reception against Iowa last season. Last Saturday, he walked into the locker room at the half, never to return to game action due to an undisclosed injury.
“We were hoping to get him back in the game on Saturday, and weren’t able to do that,” James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “Me and Juwan have been going back and forth for the last 48 hours, because I talked, obviously, to the trainers to get their feelings on it, but then I think it’s also interesting just to kind of hear what the players say themselves, what their temperament is about it.”
Johnson has had an up-and-down season, making the spectacular look easy — see his catch against Ohio State — and the easy look incredibly difficult with a plethora of drops on crossing routes.
Those drops and the inconsistency, not only of Johnson, but of the receiver corps as a whole have severely stunted the growth of the Penn State offense after the bye week two weeks ago. The group’s inability to string together consistent series has stalled many offensive drives and put the offensive backfield at a disadvantage.
“We need more production. I think if you look at some of that, it’s drops,” Franklin said.
Despite the offensive and personal struggles on the field, Johnson still ranks second on the team with 293 yards. Only redshirt freshman KJ Hamler, who has 401 yards through the first seven games of the season, has more.
With Johnson potentially out, it’s going to force the young receivers into action against Iowa this weekend, and it’s not a bad thing. The Nittany Lions boast a group of young, talented receivers who have gotten playing time so far this season.
Quarterback Trace McSorley’s top targets so far this season have been Hamler and true freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth, so it would be of no surprise if he targets more of the young wideouts early Saturday afternoon. Hamler and Freiermuth burst on to the scene with the Nittany Lions this season, but how quickly Freiermuth has adapted to college football has been impressive.
“We’re very pleased with him. I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him and been very impressed with his freshman year so far,” Franklin said.
Getting guys such as Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter involved in the offense in meaningful capacities will give Penn State a barometer of where those athletes are at in their development. Productive games could mean even more time down the road, as the Nittany Lions are faced with a brutal three game stretch featuring ranked teams Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Both Dotson and Shorter got rave reviews in training camp from Franklin and others, but it wasn’t until last Saturday against Indiana that Dotson recorded his first reception. Shorter on the other hand, was hurt in camp and has seen action only against Kent State.
It’s not only Dotson and Shorter who will potentially have an impact Saturday afternoon, but also Daniel George, who holds the school record for longest touchdown reception at 95 yards, which he set this season against Kent State. George appeared in the Indiana game but failed to be targeted.
“I talked to all three of those guys on Sunday night after practice that this was going to be a big week for them,” Franklin said. “Especially with losing some guys last week, that those guys need to prepare as if they’re going to be starters this week, and then come Thursday or Friday, we’ll make decisions.”
The Nittany Lions will get a glimpse into the future against Iowa should Johnson not be able to go, but they also might get answers for this season in a receiver group that has largely struggled. Strong performances from the young guys might earn them a more advanced role in the offense as the season continues.