When he arrived at Yankee Stadium with his Penn State teammates for last year's Pinstripe Bowl, Chris Godwin had shown some potential as a first-year wide receiver, one of seven freshmen to start a game during the season.
But promise turned to performance that balmy day in the Bronx when Godwin broke out with seven catches for 140 yards, opening the scoring for the Nittany Lions with a 72-yard touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg and sparking the team to a 31-30 overtime win over Boston College.
Godwin gained confidence from that accomplishment, carried that into offseason drills and spring ball, and kept going right into the regular season, blossoming into a big-play performer and Hackenberg's go-to guy while posting one of the best seasons by a receiver in Penn State history.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound sophomore enters the TaxSlayer Bowl matchup Saturday against Georgia with 63 catches for 968 yards. He is close to becoming the third player in school history to rack up 1,000 yards in a single season, joining Allen Robinson and Bobby Engram, each of whom did it twice.
"The confidence I have gained this year really started toward the end of last season," said Godwin, who was Delaware Gatorade player of the year as a senior at Middletown High School. "I started building that confidence and it progressed throughout the offseason. I was getting more comfortable being here, and being around my teammates and my coaches.
"Then when training camp started, I just hit the ground running. From that point, my confidence was growing and by the time I stepped on the field, it was just flying high."
In his final regular-season game, at Michigan State, Godwin established career highs with 11 receptions and two touchdown catches. His 109 yards marked his fourth game of triple digits this season and the fifth of his career. Entering bowl season, he ranked second in the Big Ten in average receiving yards (80.7), fifth in receptions per game (5.3) and sixth in yards per catch (15.37).
Penn State wide receiver coach Josh Gattis said it's more than just physical gifts that have contributed to Godwin's growth.
"He's a very talented player, a very mature player," Gattis said. "He takes a lot of pride in how he practices and prepares himself and I think that showed up in his production on the field. He's a great kid . . . an awesome teammate. He's truly a leader for us and he's a guy that we're really, really excited about. He's only going to continue to get better."
Godwin has been eye-catching in two areas this season - his ability to get the better of the opposing defensive back on the 50-50 passes, and his toughness and determination in gaining yards after the catch. One particularly memorable moment came in the Lions' game at Ohio State, when he dragged Buckeyes corner Eli Apple for almost 20 yards to finish a 56-yard completion.
Hackenberg said Godwin's ability and resolve remind him of Robinson, now of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards during Hackenberg's freshman season in 2013.
"Their ball skills are pretty similar in terms of being able to catch the ball in traffic," Hackenberg said. "They both have very strong hands. You don't see them drop a lot of footballs, and they take pride in that."
Godwin called the Robinson comparisons "pretty humbling for me.
"That's a pretty awesome feat," he said. "But I know I still have a lot of hard work to do."