Can Juwan Johnson or any Penn State wideout replace big-play knack of Godwin, Robinson?
Penn State has been spoiled to death lately with a couple of wideouts capable of changing games with big plays.
Allen Robinson’s circus catches on what were often essentially jump balls thrown by Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg turned entire contests around and flat-out won a couple. The 2013 Michigan game comes to mind. For the last three years, he’s been doing the same thing for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Chris Godwin, bigger and stronger but plenty fast, was the master at gaining leverage and beating defenders to balls in a crowd. He made the same sorts of catches for Hackenberg and Trace McSorley. Godwin is about to be chosen in Thursday’s first day of NFL Draft, most likely late in the second round, according to projections.
It’s a nice luxury to have guys like these who can be counted on to win toss-up balls in the air. But is it essential? And if anyone could break out as that man, who’s the most likely? After Saturday’s Blue-White Game, I asked several including James Franklin that question. The PSU head coach’s answer was expansive and interesting:
“A guy like Allen Robinson who can make big-time plays. I watch tape. How many times did that guy go up in double coverage and come down with the ball? He’s still doing it.
“And Godwin has been that guy. I mean, how many times has he had guys hanging all over him and he makes the contested catch of what people call ‘the 50-50 ball’? It’s not a 50-50 ball with Chris Godwin. He comes down with most of them.
“So, yeah, you need a guy who’s a play-maker. But there’s a lot of different ways to do it. We’ve had guys like those who’ve been able to high-point the ball and go get it in traffic. But you can have other guys who can just blow the top off the coverage or make people miss and do it that way and go 80 [yards] or big physical guys who can go get it.”
The candidates with one or more of those tools are spread around Penn State’s receiving corps. They are a disparate group:
Saeed Blacknall, who did not play yesterday, might be the fastest deep downfield. He showed that with a bust-out game against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. DeAndre Thompkins, who nabbed a 50-yard bomb from Tommy Stevens on Saturday, is in that category.
In the Godwin mold, Irvin Charles is big and strong and fast enough and had arguably the most important such game-changing catch of the season in the third quarter of the comeback overtime win over Minnesota.
You could even include tight end Mike Gesicki on that list because of his height, spring for a big guy and ability to get way downfield.
Juwan Johnson (84) hauls in 15-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Stevens in front of defender Troy Shorts (36) during fourth quarter of yesterday’s Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage at Beaver Stadium.PennLive/Joe Hermitt
But the most intriguing man of the potential game-busters might be sophomore Juwan Johnson. At 6-4 and 225, he has the size to win mid-air wrestling matches against anyone. And he’s athletic and explosive enough to make the leaping grab, like his TD catch from Stevens on Saturday’s final play.
“You need somebody to step up in that role,” said Franklin. “We have some guys. But there needs to be somebody who says, ‘I’m the guy when the game’s on the line. Come to me. I’m gonna make the play.'”
And that’s maybe the most important question about the game-buster: Who is aggressive and confident – even arrogant – enough? Who is that deep alpha dog into which Robinson and Godwin developed? Remember, neither became that man overnight.
When I asked Stevens the question in an open-ended fashion mentioning a big-play comparison to the departed duo without supplying any current names, he immediately had one ready:
“Allen’s doing great things with the Jags and I expect Chris to do great things wherever he ends up,” said Stevens.
Penn State wideout Juwan Johnson (84) is tackled by defensive end Shane Simmons after short catch in third quarter of Saturday’s Blue-White Game.PennLive/Joe Hermitt
“As far as the next guy, I know you guys have heard great things about Juwan. He’s doing a great job. He’s very big. And I know you’ve seen him go up and high-point one there at the very end.
“I’m not necessarily saying he can be the next one in, but he has the possibility to do it. He showed it by example there on the last play.”
Johnson himself is not shy about wanting to be that man:
“I definitely think about it. At the end of the day, you just have to make plays and put the ball in the box.”
(That’s what they’re calling the end zone these days, by the way.)
“Whether it’s by just blowing by people or getting the ball and making people miss, it’s anything to get the ball in the box.”
When I asked whether that knack certain Z-receiver types have for winning contested balls is learned or intrinsic, Johnson responded:
“It’s ultimately just attitude. Honestly, when the ball’s in the air, it just has to be your ball. It’s not a 50-50, it’s a hundred to zero. You have to have that attitude and that focus and that confidence to go up and get the ball.”
I mentioned to Johnson that Stevens came up with his name first and asked him why he thought that was:
“‘Cause, honestly, I just have the attitude when I tell him, ‘Just throw it up and I got you’ and I just go get it.”
That’s the attitude, all right. We’ll soon see if Johnson or anybody else can duplicate what two special wideouts have provided the Lions the last few years.
DAVID JONES: email@example.com