This summer, Mike Gesicki occasionally called Penn State teammate Juwan Johnson at night to see if he wanted to get something to eat.
Often, the wide receiver was running routes at Penn State’s indoor facility instead.
During preseason training camp, Gesicki and Johnson caught passes together, often until midnight or 1 a.m., to make them feel like second nature. As a result, on Saturday night in Iowa City, Gesicki expected Johnson to make the biggest catch of his young career.
“Juwan has been dialed in and completely focused on this season and has put a lot of time into it,” Gesicki said. “It's no surprise that he's been able to have success.”
Since last spring, Penn State’s players and coaches have tabbed Johnson as their breakthrough player this season. The 6-foot, 4-inch, 225-pound receiver was the offensive MVP of spring drills, and receivers coach Josh Gattis said he expected Johnson to have an “unbelievable” year.
Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, stepped into that spotlight at Iowa, catching seven passes for 92 yards, including the game-winning touchdown as time expired. He caught three passes alone on Penn State’s final drive, one more than he did in 2016. And Johnson’s first career touchdown catch happened to preserve Penn State’s perfect start to 2017.
Tending to his spiritual side: For Johnson, the ride to this point has been slower and bumpier than he expected. But following last season, Johnson wrapped himself in a workload that propelled him to the top of Penn State’s receiving depth chart. He also tended to his spiritual side, making daily devotionals and reading Bible passages at night “when times started getting rough.”
“I've grown tremendously in my spiritual walk with God,” Johnson said. “That pretty much put me in the position where I am now, just dedicating myself in football and just investing in myself and what I had to do with my body and my mind.”
Waiting for his opportunity: Johnson arrived at Penn State in 2015, a four-star receiver from Glassboro, N.J., with enviable receiver size and a long scholarship offer sheet. Redshirting as freshman wasn’t something he expected. Neither was his role last season, when Johnson played primarily special teams and caught two passes.
Though not thrilled with the role, Johnson said he accepted it. He finished second in special-teams tackles (nine) and waited for his shot in the offense. More accurately, he pursued it.
“You walk through the weight room, and he's in there getting extra work,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “You look out there on the field, he's getting extra work. He's with [quarterback] Trace [McSorley] watching film. He's just a guy that really matured. He showed up on campus very mature but has grown in so many ways in understanding what he has to do to be successful at this level.”
Marked improvement: Franklin said that Johnson has improved with both his routes and hands, calling the receiver “a vacuum” on the field. McSorley has talked at length about his confidence in Johnson, which showed Saturday night at Iowa.
McSorley targeted Johnson four times on the 12-play, 80-yard drive that won the game. Before the series started, Johnson assured Gattis that he could get open on a post route. During a timeout before the last play, Gattis told Johnson to run it.
Popular figure: Before the season, Gesicki said that Johnson “deserves all the success he’s about to have.” Certainly since Saturday, the receiver has become a popular figure on Penn State’s campus.
“My brother and my mother are always telling me to keep my head straight, keep my head above water,” Johnson said. “That's pretty much the biggest thing in things like this. You have to put things into perspective. I know things happened, had a good game, but I know I left a lot of plays out there. Could have done better, but you came out with the win. That's the main thing here.”