Quinten Johnson knew he didn’t go to Michigan to star as a freshman. Recruited as a multi-dimensional four-star defensive back in the Wolverines’ 2019 class, he knew he wouldn’t immediately usurp their crop of established starters.
What he didn’t know is that he would spend his entire freshman season watching from afar, sidelined by a groin injury that required season-ending surgery.
“He was a guy who was always playing, always on the field, always doing something for us,” Mike Ward, Johnson’s defensive coordinator at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., said last week. “And being injured, it isn’t easy, especially when you’re used to being a dude.”
That pain of not seeing the field, though, was countered by a knowledge that 2019 was a part of the process. Most around the program envision Johnson as a VIPER — a position where he has an immediate path to playing time in 2020 after Khaleke Hudson’s graduation. And with multiple potential positions for him in Michigan’s secondary, Johnson knew he could spend his freshman fall learning from those around him.
All of that was supposed to build toward the 15 practices that comprise spring ball. It’s a time of year seemingly custom-built for players like Johnson, with seniors already departed, but without the frenzied stress of fall camp.
Then came March 12.
Just four days before the start of Michigan’s spring practices, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of returning to the field and making his case as Hudson’s successor, Johnson was suddenly heading home to Washington.
He spent the next week working out at St. John’s to stay in football shape, before it too canceled classes, shutting down its football facilities in the process. Now, he’s trapped at home, attempting to fill the void left by spring ball’s cancelation with workouts that the Michigan staff has sent home to every player.
Still, Ward isn’t concerned about his development.
“I think it says a lot about (Johnson) that the first day he’s home, he comes into St. John’s and works out,” Ward said. “… (He) is not one of those guys that you have to worry about getting better.”
Even with the departures of Lavert Hill at cornerback and Josh Metellus at safety, it’s a development path likely aimed toward VIPER, where he and junior Mike Barrett are the leading candidates to replace Hudson. Though St. John’s doesn’t play with a VIPER, the position — which acts as a hybrid safety/linebacker in defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense — maximizes many of Johnson’s strengths.
“(Brown) is gonna put kids in a spot to be successful where their skillset lies,” Ward said. “And I think (Johnson) is obviously physically gifted, but he’s very intelligent, he can cover, he has great ball skills, he can tackle, he’s big, he’s strong. He did a lot of the same things — in terms of us having the VIPER position, no, but in terms of what’s asked of the VIPER position, yes.”
It’s the reason Brown and his staff recruited Johnson to Ann Arbor two years ago, even without seeing him play the position in high school. “I just think it was a perfect fit,” Ward said. “A lot of times, you’re like, ‘Why is this kid going here?’ And with Q, just in terms of the academics, the fit with coach Brown, the fit with coach (Jim) Harbaugh, the fit as a program, I thought it was a great marriage all the way around.”
Now, of course, it’s also where the loss of spring ball hits hardest. Stuck at home, Johnson can recoup some of his missed lifting sessions and workouts. But on the field, there’s no replacement for those 15 lost practices.