It’s time for our annual season top 10! Each summer, the staff votes on its top 10 players ahead of the upcoming season. A first place vote is worth 10 points, second place is worth nine points, and so on.
Reminder: This is a Top 10 for how the players will produce this season. It’s not just based on what they have done in their career up to this point. Instead, it’s how we think they will play this coming season.
HOW HE GOT HERE
A Top 100 prospect and the No. 3 overall tight end in the 2020 class, Theo Johnson enrolled at Penn State with high expectations. During his Meet The Class blurb, I predicted that Johnson would be a future All-American in Happy Valley. Lofty praise for sure, but Johnson was that talented of a tight end prospect coming out of Ontario, Canada. He had terrific size at 6-foot-6, 242 pounds, and the massive match radius to match it. He was as fluid as any tight end in the country, and given how well the Nittany Lions have used that position during the Franklin era, and it made sense that Johnson would be a perfect fit for the offense.
The first three seasons for Johnson though haven’t quite gone to plan — or, at least my plan. He played in seven games in 2020, but only had a small role playing behind the likes of Pat Freiermuth and Brenton Strange. His role increased in 2021 and 2022, but he got off to a slow start in both seasons, with 13 of his 19 catches coming in the final six games of 2021 and 18 of his 20 catches coming in the final seven games of 2022.
Of course, Johnson was playing behind Jacksonville Jaguar second round pick Brenton Strange so 40+ receptions wasn’t necessarily the realistic expectation, but the point still remains: consistency has been an issue. I imagine part of that is on Penn State and how they have utilized him up to this point, but Johnson certainly has an involvement in the matter — right down to his maybe-sorta-suspension this spring after getting arrested for assault that stemmed from a frat fight.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2023
The aforementioned Strange is gone, which means Johnson is going to have the edge to be the primary tight end receiving option this fall. Sure, we’ll see lots of Tyler Warren given Penn State’s penchant for two tight end sets (and I continue to enjoy mansion on Andrew Rappleyea Island, for anyone who wants to join), but the Nittany Lions need Johnson to take that next step. He has flashed the potential before. Case in point, I dedicated an entire blurb in my “Things I Liked” column to his 5-reception, 75-yard, one touchdown masterpiece against Minnesota during the White Out last October. As I said back then and as I say again now: he’s just such a mismatch against any defense. His combination of size, athleticism, and coordination is in the 99th percentile across college football. It’s just a matter of Penn State getting him the ball, and for Johnson to keep that consistency throughout the season.
As far as stats go, I don’t think Johnson should be expected to have Pat Freiermuth-like production where he nears 50 receptions. That’d be great and it’s something talent-wise he’s capable of, but really, three things make a successful season in my mind:
- Continue to make strides as a blocker. Johnson won’t ever be mistaken for Kyle Brady out there, but I thought 2022 was a big step in the right direction for his blocking. I’m hoping that even with an increased receiving role, the improvement as a blocker doesn’t take a backseat.
- Brenton Strange had one game last season where he recorded 0 receptions: the Rose Bowl against Utah, where he saw a decrease in snap counts compared to other games throughout the season. I’d like to see something similar for Johnson this coming year. Especially early on in the season, be a big, easy target for Drew Allar to go to.
- On a similar note, kill it in the red zone. Part of this is on the coaching staff too, but there’s no reason Johnson shouldn’t be a terror inside the 20 given all the attributes I’ve already drooled over a few times while writing this in addition to how nasty Penn State’s play action game should be.
All-American? Maybe not. But Johnson’s a good football player who could become a household name — especially in NFL circles — if some of the small things click. We here at BSD obviously like those chances.