ANN ARBOR – Less than a week after the pre-season camp, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh appeared on the In the Trenches podcast and said real first-year defender Will Johnson was as good as advertised.
The Grosse Pointe South five-star rookie was the crown jewel of the Wolverines 2022 class and was the top-ranked defensive defender Jim Harbaugh landed at Ann Arbor. Harbaugh and other coaches praised his length, cover skills and instincts, but like any freshman, his playing time will depend on how quickly he can adapt to the Michigan schema and college play.
Eight games in his career, and Johnson’s role continues to expand.
“He’s healthy,” Michigan defensive coach Steve Clinkscale said Wednesday. “It was building. He’s in freshman year, everybody says, “He’s five-star, he’s like that, he’s that.” When I bring players here, Coach Harbaugh and me, we treat them like our children. We would not like anyone else to treat him differently.
“We’ve done a really good job with these young guys and we just keep giving them a little bit of this drug until they’re ready, and I feel like it’s where it should be. He’s ready; is ready to take on a bigger task. I think you will have a chance to see him increase his reps every week and improve his play.
The 6-foot-2,194-pound Johnson has appeared in all eight games for the undefeated Wolverines and played more snaps (179) than any other newcomer. He played at least 20 snaps in six games, including Saturday’s 29-7 win against Michigan State.
Of the 20 snaps, Johnson was on the pitch, MSU threw the ball 15 times but only aimed at Johnson twice. Former Michigan defender Deon Johnson’s son allowed Jayden Reed to complete one completion, but appeared on the wide screen of the receiver. Johnson anticipated the game from his position in the outside corner and quickly approached Reed and wrapped him behind the faceoff line, losing 1 yard.
Johnson has played mostly in transitional situations this season. According to Pro, Football Focus has the highest degree of reach among Michigan players, having appeared in more than two matches, and allowed 11 receptions across 101 yards across 18 targets.
Although DJ Turner and Gemon Green start playing around the corner of Michigan, the Wolverines continue to involve Johnson in their game plan.
Don’t be surprised if Johnson sees an enhanced role as Michigan delves into the season, especially given Green’s questionable status in Saturday’s game against Rutgers. After Michigan defeated MSU on Saturday, Green suffered a concussion during a post-match incident involving Spartan players, according to Green’s attorney Tom Mars.
“Just stack, build,” Clinkscale said of Johnson. “I know the coach (Harbaugh) talks about it all the time. So for him it was building more reps while training and then he would do more reps while playing. Thanks to these repetitions in training and in the game, he gains more experience. We were able to fix all the mistakes of the newbies he made.
“But he doesn’t play that (rookie). Plays like a vet. So we’re going to keep giving him more and giving him the ability to come out and influence the game like he’s showing us. But I’m very happy with where he is and want to keep pushing him.