Defensive tackle Will Johnson walked to the sidelines and tried to lift his knee up, and what happened next convinced him he was injured.

Angela Cesere
Will Johnson has struggled through injuries in his time at Michigan, but this season he is filling a much-needed role. (TREVOR CAMPBELL/Daily)

His knee didn’t cooperate. Instead, it flopped sideways.

“I knew something was messed up, but I didn’t think it was that bad,” Johnson said. “Oh well.”

And that was Johnson’s precursor to Michigan.

The August of his senior year at Lake Orion High School in Oakland, Johnson’s team was playing Bay City Central High School in a scrimmage. One of Johnson’s teammates went to make a tackle and crashed into Johnson’s knee. The top-rated high school defensive lineman in the state didn’t find out the extent of the injury, until he went to Schemblechler Hall.

There, the doctors examined the knee and told Johnson he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. After surgery, he discovered he would have to redshirt his freshman year.

But Johnson didn’t let the news get him down. Instead, he found the support he needed from physical therapist Phil Krauss, who guided him through both the physical and mental challenges of the injury.

“He brought me along each day, telling me to keep going, it’s going to get better,” Johnson said. “It was a long process, five or six months, and he brought me to where I’m. So I appreciate it.”

Even though the injury was severe, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr never considered pulling Johnson’s scholarship off the table. He relayed that reassurance to the recruit shortly following the injury.

Still, the coach knew Johnson had a long way to go before he could contribute to the Wolverines.

“When he got here a year later, he wasn’t even close,” Carr said. “And really, for the better part of two years, maybe even three, he was never without ramifications from that injury.”

Misfortune struck again during Johnson’s sophomore year. In spring practice, he battled a pulled hamstring and mononucleosis. But entering training camp this season, Johnson, for the first time in his three years at Michigan, finally felt completely healthy.

Johnson found a suitable role coming into the season, filling in for either Alan Branch or Terrance Taylor.

So far, he has performed up to expectations

This season, he has played in all eight games. The 6-foot-5 291-pound defensive tackle has rotated into a defensive front that leads the nation in rush defense, making four tackles.

Once again completely healthy, Johnson also credits defensive line coach Steve Stripling for helping him make the impact he has on the field.

“I worked hard in the off-season,” Johnson said. “Coach Stripling has brought me a long way technique-wise, and he’s helped my playing ability. . I know the game plan a lot better so I can play faster.”

Johnson almost seems out of place on a defensive line featuring Taylor, who some on the team say is the team’s funniest player, and LaMarr Woodley, who never stops joking around. But the calm, quiet Johnson only smiles and, after admitting he’s near the bottom on the funny scale, says he can hold his own.

With the outgoing personalities and dominating performance on Saturdays, Johnson may get lost in the shuffle of a talented and deep front four, but his coach has definitely taken notice of his contribution to the team.

“Last spring was the first time he really played with good health,” Carr said. “By that time, he had really grown into a big, powerful guy. He’s tough. He’s competitive. He’s smart. And he’s got a great role on this team.”

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