Before each game, every member of the No. 3 Michigan football team’s defense declares their goals for that week. Freshman cornerback Will Johnson typically has one objective at the top of his mind.
“Every week I want to get an interception,” Johnson said. “I say that every week just to speak it into existence and manifest that. So every game that’s one of my goals.”
Entering the Rutgers game, Johnson had yet to make good on his vision. But Saturday night, he made his first start and subsequently snagged his first career pick.
It was a moment of jubilation for Johnson. Except for one thing:
His goal was to get two.
“I said two, but I got one,” Johnson said. “So I didn’t fully get it.”
For Johnson, the first shot at increased playing time represented an opportune moment to raise his goals — and it’s fitting for a player of his caliber. Johnson was the No. 15 player overall in the 2022 247 sports composite, and he is the crown jewel of Michigan’s freshman class. As soon as he arrived for spring practice, he was ready to soak up information and make an immediate impact.
But he wasn’t going to be a starter from day one. It would take time to learn a new, more advanced defensive scheme and keep up with a faster speed than the high school game. That required Johnson to be coached up.
“Like a lot of young players, the longer it takes him to figure that out, the better off he’ll be,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “(If he) just keeps working and playing, things are gonna work out really good for Will.”
Johnson has seen playing time in every game this year, accumulating nine tackles so far. But those strides he’s making haven’t come without growing pains.
In Michigan’s season-opener against Colorado State, Johnson got beat in man-to-man coverage for a deep touchdown. There have been moments throughout the season when Johnson has lost his assignment in coverage — there’s a reason he hasn’t overtaken more veteran players yet.
And Johnson knows, despite his five-star billing, that he’s not going to be a finished product in year one. So he’s found a different way to inject influence into the secondary room: the turnover buffs.
The buffs, a cultural staple in Johnson’s hometown of Detroit, have been a motivational tool for the defense to increase their emphasis on turnovers. When the Wolverines get a turnover, that player gets to don the buffs. Several members of the secondary have bestowed that honor throughout the season, and Johnson was just happy to hype up his teammates and pose for the sideline photo.
But he was only going to remain a bystander for so long.
“He’s ready to take on a bigger task,” Michigan defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said Nov. 2, prior to the Rutgers game. “I think that you guys will get a chance to see him each week and increase the reps and improve his play.”
On Saturday, fans finally got to see if Johnson could make good on Clinkscale’s expectations. With graduate cornerback Gemon Green, the usual starter, still recovering from injuries sustained in the post-game tunnel incident against Michigan State, Johnson was thrust into a starting spot.
When a pass floated deep down the right sideline in the third quarter, Johnson read it perfectly — jumping the route, snagging the ball and then evading several defenders for a solid return into Rutgers territory.
After getting tackled, Johnson popped up immediately and sprinted to the sideline. For the first time, Johnson would get to wear the buffs himself.
“I’m living the dream,” Johnson said. “I grew up wanting to play here and playing on the highest level and starting as a freshman, so it’s definitely a blessing for sure.”
Johnson’s experience, warts and all, has lived up to his expectations so far.
Moving forward — as he continues to see his role expand — he wants to continue making good on his manifestations as well.