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Can Will Johnson live up to the legacy of Charles Woodson?

The current No. 2 has drawn numerous comparisons to the greatest No. 2 in Michigan history.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan’s secondary is expected to be one of the best in the country this season. The Wolverines return four of five starters from 2022 and transfer Josh Wallace – a four-year starter and team captain at UMass – is expected to fill the only vacancy.

Rod Moore and Mikey Sainristil are All-American contenders and Makari Paige is finally starting to scratch the surface of his limitless potential. But one of the biggest reasons this unit is garnering so much praise and expectation is because sophomore Will Johnson returns on the outside.

Johnson finished last season with 27 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and three interceptions, and only became a starter in Week 9. As a starter, Johnson was tasked with covering a trio of elite receivers in consecutive weeks to close the season: Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., Purdue’s Charlie Jones, and TCU’s Quentin Johnston.

Jones led the nation in receptions and was second in receiving yards last season. Johnston was a first-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft, and Marvin Harrison Jr. is considered the best wide receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson.

The freshman impressed so much in those match-ups specifically that Pro Football Focus believed Johnson would have been a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft had he been eligible.

However, since he is forced to return to Ann Arbor, expectations have sky-rocketed around Johnson. He is already being compared to historic Michigan corners such as Jourdan Lewis, Leon Hall, and Marlin Jackson. In some circles, Johnson is even being compared to the legend Charles Woodson.

While at Michigan, Woodson famously became the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy and helped anchor one of the best defenses in the country en route to a national championship.

Woodson is a one-of-one with his contributions to all three sides of the game, but what would Johnson have to do to keep pace with the Michigan legend solely from a defensive perspective?

As a freshman, Woodson was named a starter in the second game of the season and finished the year with 55 tackles and five interceptions. Johnson is not far off the pace on a per-game basis and his totals remain respectable despite starting five fewer games than Woodson.

Woodson’s sophomore season saw the defensive star take on offensive and punt-return duties without sacrificing his production as a defender. SportsReference only credits Woodson with four picks, but the U-M Bentley Historical Library and official Heisman site credits him with five interceptions, in addition to racking up over 60 tackles

Young Will won’t have to do anything outside of his capabilities to keep pace, but he will have to display the same trademark consistency that Woodson always demonstrated. And then he will have to do it again in his junior season.

With a secondary full of stars, an improved pass rush, and a primetime rematch with Marvin Harrison Jr. looming, Johnson has everything lining up for him to catch the former Heisman winner’s defensive output.

Johnson could even do him one better by winning a national title as a sophomore as opposed to a junior. However, no matter what Johnson does this season he will never be Woodson. Woodson is a one-of-one; a three-way star whose legacy is infallible and unrepeatable.

But Johnson could become a one-of-one in his own right. A transcendent corner that eliminates one player or one side of the field. A player that offers no timeshares on Johnson Island and no reprieve from his physically imposing style. The first & only Will Johnson. And in a way, that’s even better.