Expectations for sophomore Cornelius Johnson were already rising to start the 2021 season, but an early injury to Ronnie Bell left the Michigan Wolverines short on outside threats. While the wide receiver room was loaded with shifty speedsters, Johnson stood alone as the prototypical physical option of the group.
Johnson is plenty fast in his own right, but Michigan needed a receiver who could go up and snag the ball from the air and dominate in the red zone. He was able to show this at times, but it still feels like his development is not yet complete. Johnson heads into his junior year with the chance to break out in a big way.
The story so far
A four-star recruit that landed in the top 200 overall of the 247 Composite, Johnson’s story is not dissimilar to many of his classmates. Nearly every Wolverine had a forgettable 2020, though Johnson did make his mark in limited opportunities; the freshman hauled in 16 catches over four games with a 15.9-yard average and led the team with three receiving touchdowns.
2021 saw his production jump up to 627 receiving yards, which led the team by nearly 200 yards. His 40 catches were also tops, and he essentially kept pace from the prior season with 15.7 yards per catch. However, he once again caught just three touchdowns, which was a little surprising given his role in the offense.
Much of this could be attributed to the durability of Hassan Haskins and the limitations of Cade McNamara, but with the former off to the NFL and the latter potentially replaced by the big-armed J.J. McCarthy, Johnson will really need to see his scoring jump for 2022 to be considered a successful year. It can take wide receivers time to grow into the offense, but at this point his skill set is pretty clear.
Johnson’s catch against Ohio State set up a huge Michigan touchdown before halftime that recaptured the lead for the Wolverines. That and his flea flicker score at Wisconsin are great examples of his speed and route running, though deemphasize his physicality:
It was his second touchdown catch against the Badgers that showed his size and red zone threat, which should become bigger factors next season. It will require another step forward in reliability (more on that in a second), but aside from Erick All there is not another target who is a better weapon in this capacity.
Outlook moving forward
Johnson saw plenty of targets in 2021, and even with the return of Bell he should continue to land pretty high up the list. One area that he must improve, however, is securing the football, as a few times drops got in the way of what could have been much bigger performances.
The biggest reason to get excited for Johnson’s junior year is he offers something that the rest of the receiving corps does not have. Bell is a leader and a versatile chess piece, but athletically he will never be Johnson. There are plenty of A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson types to deploy, but that is a much different role than what Johnson offers. And while Andrel Anthony should take a step forward and some of the highly ranked freshmen will get a look, the incumbent will earn the primary reps.
If McNamara is at the helm again, Johnson should produce another season as one of the team’s best receivers, leveraging his big frame and downfield ability. However if McCarthy does indeed take over, then look out — Johnson will see plenty of deep balls and opportunities to make contested catches in tight coverage and could become the phenom quarterback’s top option. If he can work on his hands, he might become one of the conference’s best receivers with passes coming in from a quarterback like McCarthy.