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It’s going to be an interesting year of transition for the Penn State Nittany Lion passing offense. Losing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State’s head coaching gig was bad enough. But State College, PA also bid farewell to talent like WR DaeSean Hamilton, TE Mike Gesicki and RB Saquon Barkley, as all departed for the NFL. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of new faces in key places in 2018 for the Lions.

There is, however, a pair of key offensive starters who will be back again in 2018: QB Trace McSorley (No. 9) and WR Juwan Johnson ( No. 84).

There’s some sense of optimism around McSorley in State College but it appears to be misplaced. McSorley is currently too rough around the edges to be a favorable projection to the NFL. Too many routine throws are left high and inside, too many clean pockets are flushed too quickly and too many throws appear to be pre-determined prior to the snap.

Make no mistake, McSorley does have some desirable athletic tools. For example his arm possesses enough strength to push the ball with pace as needed and he’s a very mobile passer who offers the ability to extend plays with his legs. He’s a fine college quarterback but ascending into a legitimate pro prospect would be a surprise.

If McSorley is going to make that push in his final season at Penn State, he’s going to be reliant on Juwan Johnson to make a big leap of his own. Johnson will be afforded every opportunity in the world to do so this season. With Hamilton (1st on the team in receiving yards in 2017), Barkley (3rd) and Gesicki (4th) all gone from the Lions’ passing attack, Johnson is the predominant target.

He’s also hard to miss in the secondary, a looming presence listed at 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds. Johnson will require some polish in the coming year in order to make the most of his rare physical ability, both from a receiving perspective and as a blocker to compliment his team’s efforts. Johnson, who posted 54 receptions for just over 700 yards but only one touchdown in 2017, has the catch radius and hands to be much more of a high volume receiver.

The gripes around Johnson’s game are certainly fixable. He spent too much time at the line of scrimmage working free against press coverage at times in 2017. With his size and length, there’s reason to have optimism that this key area can be addressed.

In terms of positive traits, Johnson has a strong set of mitts and although he was frequently implemented in shallow crosses that set him up for early contact, Johnson consistently pinballed off of potential tackles to create extra yardage after the catch. Furthermore, Johnson impressed with his quickness at the top of his stem, particularly for such a big target. A great example came on Johnson’s lone touchdown catch last season, a 4th-down catch to beat Iowa:

Talent plus opportunity often equals success. So with his quarterback having a clear preference in Johnson relative to the lack of chemistry in the receiving room? Johnson is a player draft fanatics and college fans alike should expect to hear much, much more frequently when tuned into the Lions in 2018.

With a strong season, Juwan Johnson can play himself into consideration to be an early draft selection, courtesy of his unique size for the position and intriguing functional athleticism.