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Cornelius Johnson’s path to Michigan, outlook for 2023

Is a return to WR1 imminent?

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Cornelius Johnson is entering his fifth season with the Michigan Wolverines and has had some memorable moments throughout his tenure with the program. With Ronnie Bell in the NFL, Johnson will have the opportunity to be the top dog in the receiver room this fall.

The story so far

Johnson entered Ann Arbor as a four-star recruit and the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Connecticut. He made an impression as a true freshman, playing in 12 games and catching his first career touchdown pass from Shea Patterson against Michigan State.

Still, he was in a crowded room with guys like Nico Collins, Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones, so he had the opportunity to grow and develop behind some quality players.

He earned an extra year of eligibility during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, where he led the team with three receiving touchdowns. His biggest game of the year was a five-catch, 105-yard performance in Cade McNamara’s coming-out party and the comeback win against Rutgers.

At that point, fans knew Johnson was going to have an important role on the team as long as McNamara was quarterback. After Bell tore his ACL to open up the 2021 season, Johnson was flung into the WR1 role. He wound up leading the Wolverines with 39 receptions for 620 yards and three touchdowns. But scrutiny came late in the season where he only recorded a combined five catches for 98 yards in Michigan’s biggest games of the year (Ohio State, Big Ten Championship Game vs. Iowa, and CFP game vs. Georgia).

As Bell returned for 2022 fully healed and some younger guys appeared to be surging, there were some questions if Johnson could get passed up. Instead, he stepped up and led the team with six receiving touchdowns and put up almost 500 yards on 32 receptions with his fourth starting quarterback in four years as J.J. McCarthy took over.

Johnson’s two touchdowns against Ohio State changed the trajectory of the game and are overlooked because of what Donovan Edwards did on the ground in the second half.

Outlook moving forward

Many anticipate Johnson to take this momentum and his past experience as WR1 into the 2023 season. There were times last season when this team needed him, and in the biggest moments, he showed up.

Now he has to stack it up and have consistent performances. I think there is a chance we see Michigan air it out a little more this season with a second-year stud quarterback. If that’s the case, Johnson has the ability to be McCarthy’s favorite option.

Johnson’s had some issues with drops throughout his career and there have been several games where he was basically irrelevant. Part of that comes down to the offense’s run-heavy scheme, but it also implies Johnson hasn’t been able to get open against some of the better competition they face.

After that Ohio State game, he had just three receptions for 39 yards against Purdue and TCU combined. Harbaugh is in need of a top dog in this receiving corp, and Johnson is the favorite to be that. But it doesn’t come without the question marks of inconsistency throughout his tenure at Michigan.