Juwan Johnson's breakout potential another big piece for Penn State in 2017

Juwan Johnson has created a buzz this spring for the Nittany Lions heading into 2017. How does Johnson feel about those expectations?

Penn State heads into the 2017 football season with several easy-to-identify reasons for excitement.

The defending Big Ten champions boast not one, but two Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Tight end Mike Gesicki bypassed the NFL Draft, and fourth-year coach James Franklin is building on all that success with another strong recruiting class.

Yet the player who is generating the most buzz heading into Saturday's spring game at Beaver Stadium (3 p.m. on Big Ten Network) a 6-4, 218-pound junior who had just two catches for 70 yards in 2016.

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Say hello to Juwan Johnson. He's looking to fill the void left by Chris Godwin, who led the Nittany Lions with 982 yard and 11 TDs in 2016. Johnson said Godwin told him it was his time to step up before declaring for the NFL Draft.

That's been the mission this spring, and Johnson said he's become a more consistent practice player. Asked about a play that stood out most this spring, instead of a one-handed catch, he talked about a downfield block (seen here via DKSportsPittsburgh.com) which sprung a long run by McSorley. That's been part of a more consistent approach on the practice field.

In this case, Johnson does want to talk about practice.

"I was inconsistent the last two years," Johnson said on a teleconference Tuesday. "If I had a good practice then the next practice wouldn't be as good or better ... As the spring went on I had good practice, good practice and even better the next time. I guess I realized at practice when I was getting better and better and better."

Johnson figures to work in a talented group of receivers that also features Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins, DaeSean Hamilton, Irvin Charles and Brandon Polk. It's an exciting dimension in Joe Moorhead's second year as offensive coordinator. The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points per game last season. Johnson wants in on that action, and Franklin noticed this spring.

"He's just taken a very mature approach," Franklin said. "A very mature approach; very aggressive approach all offseason. He redshirted as a freshman, played a little bit as a true freshman and now he kind of has it figured out what he needs to be successful. … I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities, and it's all starting to come together for him."

Part of that approach is an acute sense of self-awareness. Johnson remembers scoffing at the scouting reports questioning his hands coming out of high school before admitting "it was true." He dropped too many passes in practice. He didn't do enough to get on the field despite those physical gifts.

"I've always been a person that's been, not looked down on but, ‘He's going to be good, we've got to find out when,'" Johnson said in that personal self-evaluation.

We'll find out now. McSorley, Barkley and Gesicki have helped create expectations perhaps not felt since 1994, when Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Kyle Brady helped the Nittany Lions average 47 points per game. Of course, Bobby Engram was the leading receiver star receiver that made that group an unstoppable quartet. Will Johnson be that guy for Penn State in 2017?

If the early reports are true, and Johnson said the offense has "clicked on all cylinders" this spring, then the Nittany Lions should pick up right where they left off in the back half of the 2016 season. Johnson wants to be a part of that, and he's not afraid to set his put those expectations to the highest setting.

"Win a Big Ten championship and win a national championship," Johnson said. "Those are the two things I want. Not just for me, but for my teammates."

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