Cornelius Johnson emerging as Michigan's number two receiver

Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 5:52pm

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Allison Engkvist/Daily

Deep in the fourth quarter Saturday night in Piscataway, Cornelius Johnson took a screen pass on the right sideline and cut downfield for a nine-yard touchdown. With the play, the sophomore receiver gave Michigan an eight-point lead that ultimately prevented Rutgers from winning in regulation.

He also hit a rare milestone for the Wolverines in recent years: A 100-yard receiving day.

It’s a tally that Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins combined for once in their careers. When Collins opted out this summer and declared for the NFL Draft, it officially ended the Michigan careers of three of the Wolverines’ most talented receivers in recent memory.

Even if their production never met expectations, the trio’s departures left a massive void in Michigan’s downfield passing game.

Ronnie Bell, the former two-star recruit who has led the Wolverines in receiving yards the past two years, has turned into the unlikeliest of number one receivers. Bell, though, is a crafty weapon in the middle of the field. He specializes in finding holes in the defense on broken plays and making the most of short, quick passes. He is a quintessential slot receiver, leaving holes to fill on the outside as Michigan replaced Black, Peoples-Jones and Collins.

Five weeks in, Johnson has stepped into that role.

Despite starting the season with no receptions against Minnesota, he’s second on the team with 239 yards and has a team-leading three touchdowns.

“Just been continuous progress for him and noted it three or four weeks back,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “Just getting better every day really. Seen that with him and several players. He’s got a great mindset right now, his training has been on point every single week and practicing well and playing well in the games.”

Despite being held without a reception in the Wolverines’ 49-11 loss to Wisconsin, the proof sits in Johnson’s upward trend. Excluding that game, his receiving totals in the last four games are 52, 82 and 105. His first touchdown, meanwhile, came in Week 3 against Indiana, before adding two scores Saturday.

The difference, according to junior cornerback Vincent Gray, comes from an increased focus in practice.

“Walking into that role, (he) has been a big-time receiver for us who we need to make plays on a consistent basis,” Gray said. “I would say he’s locking in a lot more mentally.”

Every day, Johnson said Tuesday, he chooses one aspect of his game to focus on, whether it’s footwork, eyes or hand placement. Through the day of practice, he keeps that focus in mind.

Over the course of the season, that myopic focus has transformed his game as a whole.

“He’s starting to know what he’s doing within a route and he knows how to set up routes now,” Gray said. “You can tell he’s got a better understanding of the game versus when he was a freshman. Which all freshman receivers do, just lineup and just run. He’s setting up his routes, he knows what he’s doing and he has a plan every time he comes to the line now.”

According to Harbaugh, his game now complements Bell’s because of his “catch range.” And while Bell excels in tight windows, Johnson is more of a downfield threat. Two of his three touchdowns this year have come on deep balls. Against Indiana, he connected with Joe Milton by making a contested catch on a post route. This week, he caught Michigan’s first touchdown from Cade McNamara after a well-executed double move.

“At times you don’t even really know who the quarterback is, at least for me,” Johnson said. “I just go out there and run my route and do my job.”

A year ago, Johnson was third among Wolverines’ freshmen in receiving yardage. When Collins opted out, his name was seldom mentioned as a replacement.

Now, five weeks into his sophomore year, Johnson has emerged as Michigan’s primary downfield threat.

“He’s really developed his release at the line of scrimmage, gaining separation,” Harbaugh said. “Just the motor movements of playing receiver, his hands, catching the football. All those things a receiver has they can improve.”


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