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How Will Johnson’s true freshman season led him to being No. 3 on PFF’s list of returning cornerbacks in college football

Expectations are where they should for the rising sophomore — HIGH!

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Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Pro Football Focus (PFF) released their list of the top 10 returning cornerbacks in college football for next season. Michigan’s Will Johnson was the highest ranked sophomore and No. 3 overall.

Here is what PFF had to say about the second-year player:

Johnson entered Ann Arbor as a five-star recruit and showed immediately that he was worth the hype.

“He’ll remind many of Patrick Surtain II thanks to his size (6-foot-2) and lockdown ability. As a true freshman, Johnson’s 91.1 grade in man coverage led all corners in the Power Five. His two interceptions in man were also tied for fifth in that same group.”

Many talented corners have played at Michigan, but most struggled to produce or even see the field as a freshman. It wasn’t a straight line from five-star talent to elite production for Johnson. But after taking his early season lumps, he followed in the footsteps of a Wolverine teammate and developed into the best Michigan cornerback prospect since Leon Hall.

Let’s go back. Week 1 against Colorado State, the Wolverines are cruising to victory up 44-0 early in the fourth quarter. Michigan’s second-string defense is in the game facing the Rams’ first-team offense who are merely fighting for respectability at this point.

Colorado State quarterback Clay Millen drops back and fires a 34-yard strike to Tory Holton, past the outstretched arms of Johnson in the end zone. Johnson was clearly caught peaking and despite his elite speed, could not recover.

It was a learning experience for Johnson, and the play was eerily similar to safety Rod Moore’s freshman learning experience against Washington the year prior. Like Moore, Johnson prepared, earned his minutes, flashed his physicality in a reserve role and when he was tasked to start later in the season against Rutgers, he was ready.

While Johnson did not record a tackle, he secured his first career interception on one of the few plays he was tested against the Scarlet Knights. With this performance, Johnson locked up a starting role the rest of the season and after two more warm-up coverage assignments against Nebraska and Illinois, it was time for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes featured the best wide receiver room in the country and were led by All-American and Biletnikoff finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. The vast majority of corners in the country would play tight, or stupidly over-aggressive against such an outside talent, but whenever Johnson was called upon, he played physical, instinctive, and never let the moment get to him.

Harrison Jr. put up his usual numbers, but very few yards came against the young freshman. Johnson finished with a career-high in tackles (eight) against Ohio State, just like Rod Moore had done the year before with nine against the Buckeyes.

This outstanding performance to finish the regular season would be the pinnacle for most freshmen, but it was only a prelude for what Johnson had in store for the Big Ten Championship. Facing Purdue and the nation’s leading receiver Charlie Jones (110 receptions, 1,361 yards, 12 touchdowns), Johnson delivered like very few Wolverines before him. He allowed only three receptions and picked off Aidan O’Connell twice, helping cap off a perfect regular season for the Wolverines.

Johnson was named a freshman All-American by PFF, 247Sports and The Athletic. His freshman year statistics were comparable to a trio of former Michigan.

Per MGoBlue Statistics:

1995: Charles Woodson: 55 tackles, zero tackles for loss, five interceptions, four PBU’s

2001 Marlin Jackson: 47 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, four PBU’s

2003 Leon Hall: 26 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, six PBU’s

2022 Will Johnson: 27 tackles, two tackles for loss, three interceptions, six PBU’s

If Johnson continues on this trajectory, it is safe to predict more pass breakups, tackles and a greater concerted effort of avoidance by opposing quarterbacks. He is a generational talent, but still has several areas to clean up in order to actualize his vast potential.

Against TCU in the College Football Playoff, Johnson struggled with crossing routes, eye discipline and communication, as freshmen are known to do. He has time to get his feet underneath him this season — Michigan’s 2023 schedule is very forgiving early on against weaker opposing passing offenses — but two key rivalry matchups loom large for the sophomore.

Spartan wide receiver Keon Coleman and a Harrison Jr. rematch will provide tests to see if Johnson has taken that next step. The legacy commit and native Michigander has understood and surpassed the expectations since arriving in Ann Arbor. No Michigan cornerback wears the No. 2 jersey without understanding the pressure that comes with it.

And so far, Johnson has looked like all of the greats before him.