After the No. 2 Michigan football team defeated Rutgers on Saturday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh addressed questions about his return with a joke.
“I guess you thought me, Will Johnson and Rod Moore were on the back of a milk carton somewhere you couldn’t find us,” Harbaugh quipped. “But we’ve been found! And we’re back playing.”
And while Harbaugh’s return was immediately greeted with roaring cheers, the return of sophomore defensive back Will Johnson — though less eye-catching than Harbaugh — is sure to be incredibly impactful for the Wolverines.
Johnson came to life late last season, earning a spot as a consistent starter and notching three interceptions in just five starts. And as one of only two returning starters and the No. 1 recruit from Michigan’s 2022 class, Johnson was expected to be a major part of the cornerback group for the entire season.
However, as Johnson fully healed from injury through the first three weeks, he missed two games entirely and played just eight snaps against UNLV. Johnson and the Wolverines’ coaching staff, not wanting to risk any possible aggravation of his knee injury, took it slow during non-conference play.
But this past Saturday against Rutgers, Johnson did the exact opposite of going slow. On the field for 43 of 46 total total defensive snaps, more than anyone else. He wasn’t just back — he was a defensive centerpiece.
“I’m pretty comfortable now,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Last year it was just me trying to feel it out a little bit. Now, it’s just, I’m dealing with something totally different. … I’m feeling great. I’m just excited to be back out there.”
For Johnson, his absence in the first weeks of the season was a precautionary measure.
“If I had to (play), I definitely could have,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to be my healthiest and the best I could for my team.”
But with a relatively light schedule, Michigan didn’t need Johnson in those first games. Sophomore and graduate defensive backs Keon Sabb and Keshaun Harris filled the absence well, allowing no passing touchdowns.
However, with the Wolverines’ schedule picking up and Big Ten play in full swing, Johnson’s return is integral for Michigan.
“(He brings) a lot of energy, a lot of confidence,” graduate defensive back Mike Sainristil said Tuesday. “Seeing a young guy, a freshman come and do (what he did last year), that gives you a lot of trust. I know that I’m gonna do my job, and he’s gonna do his job as well.”
The former five-star recruit is a defensive force. He was the highest graded defensive back for the Wolverines last year. And while his return on Saturday was not marked by a massive defensive play like Sainristil’s, he has rounded out the cornerbacks room. As the Wolverines prepare for more pass heavy attacks, he provides Michigan with another experienced defensive back.
Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue have all averaged over 250 yards of passing offense through the first four weeks. And if the Wolverines are to succeed against these upcoming opponents, Johnson will likely be an integral part of that.
While he’s physically recovered from injury, a major part of Johnson’s return has been focused not just on his physical health, but on his mental preparation. With his return, the final barrier has been learning to trust his leg and knee in a physical sport.
And for Johnson, that trust is built through repetition.
“It’s definitely the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “I mean, even playing after this game this week, I think that helped me a lot. Being comfortable playing on that leg and knowing what I can and can’t do definitely helped me a lot. Because you step one wrong way and you’re kind of worried. Once you go out and do it, that all goes away.”
With the physical and mental barriers clearing, Johnson is now officially back. After three weeks seemingly spent on a “milk carton” alongside Harbaugh and Moore, he’s reclaimed his spot in the lineup, he’s playing the entire game and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.