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Leading by Example

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson can just about always be found on the field post-practice surrounded by seniors DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki.

It's a roughly two-year routine, originally started around spring ball and something Gesicki joked about earlier this week, wondering who Johnson might select to join him next year. It begins with pass-catching but each session ends with 20 contested catches and wet ball drills.

In an emotional start to a damp and chilly evening at Beaver Stadium Saturday, Penn State honored its 23 seniors and their families pregame.

Nittany Lions did not disappoint on the special day, sending the 2017 seniors out with an emphatic 56-44 win against Nebraska for a second consecutive undefeated season at home, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in more than 30 years.

Penn State's offense was spectacular to start, as running back Saquon Barkley broke free for a 65-yard touchdown to put Penn State out to an early lead. As the Huskers capitalized on special teams miscues to pull ahead, it was the post-practice crew who helped ignite the offense.

Following a clutch 7-yard third- down catch from Hamilton to extend the drive, quarterback Trace McSorley found Johnson for a career-high tying 43-yard catch and run, eventually leading to a 1-yard Barkley touchdown run. Penn State piled on with four consecutive scoring drives, including a 9-yard Gesicki touchdown grab to send Penn State surge ahead 42-10 by halftime.

Johnson's catch was just the first of five, in which he accounted for a career-high 105 yards to lead the team. Reflecting on his first career 100-yard receiving game postgame though, he mentioned increased confidence of course, but gave credit elsewhere.

"Honestly it's just self-confidence and having teammates around you like DaeSean [Hamilton] and Mike [Gesicki], just always working wet balls after practice for 30 minutes," Johnson said.  "Just getting out there and working on the things you need to work on. For me, self-confidence and just attacking it."

While they couldn't be more different as individuals off the field, the stories of Hamilton and Gesicki and their Penn State careers on the field, in many ways, couldn't be more similar.

As Gesicki pointed out postgame though, their success hasn't simply come by way of coincidence. Through the ups and downs, good times and bad, they never waived in their dedication, choosing to lean on their work ethic to find success.

Hamilton, who recently became Penn State's all-time leader in receptions was of course alongside Gesicki Saturday as he broke Ted Kwalick's record (1,343; 1966-68) for receiving yards by a tight end. Gesicki, who caught four passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskers, wrapped up his final game on the field at Beaver Stadium with 1,384 career receiving yards, and there's still plenty of football to be played this year.

It's through those post-practice sessions though, that Johnson saw the paths of Gesicki and Hamilton taking shape.

"I found out what their character is like, and they're funny guys but just how hard they work," Johnson said. "It didn't matter how cold it was or how hot it was, throughout the season they were always out there after practice, willing to catch the ball, willing to get extra work and that's something I'll always carry with me for the rest of my life. Those are guys who I will always call my brothers."

The result for Johnson of course, is burgeoning confidence, something McSorley pointed to postgame. 

"We've seen Juwan have that in-practice confidence, where he can go up there and put his big old paw up there and snag it and bring it down with one hand," McSorley said. "To see him have that in-game confidence where he trusts himself that much in a game. It's awesome to be able to know he has that game confidence in him and everyone else and probably for a guy like DaeSean too who has been a real mentor to him."

For Franklin, the future for Johnson is perhaps as bright as it's ever been.

"I couldn't be more excited about Juwan and his future and that's in every way possible," Franklin said. "The exciting part is, I still think there's a lot more left in the tank for him. I think there's a lot of areas where he can continue to grow and develop and a lot of it is just from a confidence standpoint, but I think he's going to continue to be a problem (for other teams) for the rest of this season and take that into the future as well."

While Johnson hasn't quite decided who will join him on the field post-practice next year, if being great is making those around you better, that's exactly what these seniors have done.

While just a small snapshot featuring two of the 23 who will depart the team this year, it is yet another example of precisely the legacy they'll leave behind.   

"These guys are of the Penn State mold," senior offensive lineman Brendan Mahon said. "They do the right things and they mirror the players that have come before us. That's the kind of kids these younger players are. They work really hard and they're blue collar. That's Penn State, and I think they're going to keep it that way for a long time."

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