University of Michigan defensive back Will Johnson lines up against Michigan State University’s Jayden Reed on Oct. 29 at Michigan Stadium.

University of Michigan defensive back Will Johnson lines up against Michigan State University’s Jayden Reed on Oct. 29 at Michigan Stadium.

Photo provided by U-M Photography/Athletics

Will Johnson reflects on first season at Michigan

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 8, 2023

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — A program has struck gold when its freshmen talent can make an immediate impact on the football field, but that description doesn’t begin to express the difference defensive back Will Johnson made for the University of Michigan this season.

Flash-forward approximately a year after he enrolled early for winter practices in January of 2022, just days after Michigan lost to the University of Georgia in the College Football Playoff, and Johnson was lining up against Texas Christian University wide receiver Quentin Johnston in a different Michigan CFP game.

“It was definitely different; I’ve never played in a game like that before,” Johnson said. “As a player, you don’t feel as much, but you feel it when you’re on the sidelines watching the offense play. It’s definitely an atmosphere I’ve never played in before, but it was a lot of fun.”

Johnson was unlike any other freshman Michigan has seen on the defensive side in recent years, racking up three interceptions on the season, including two in Michigan’s 43-22 win over Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 3.

Johnson began the season like any freshman trying to find his footing, but everything seemed to click during his first career start when he recorded his first career interception in a 52-17 win over Rutgers on Nov. 5.

In Michigan’s marquee win of the season, the freshman All-American recorded a career-high eight tackles as Michigan defeated No. 2 Ohio State 45-23 in Columbus on Nov. 26.

Going head-to-head against Ohio State’s elite-level receiving core with the magnitude of the Big Ten championship being on the line, Johnson said he never felt more focused than during that weeklong stretch.

“I was talking to my friends about it not too long ago,” Johnson said. “That was probably the most locked in I’ve been for a football game, especially the Ohio State game. Just all the emotions I had going into that game and how much it meant to me definitely had me locked in and ready to make a statement, and I think that’s just where my mindset was, and it translated on the field.”

Johnson’s preparation from Grosse Pointe South High School — as well as his close-knit football camp with his father, ex-Wolverine defensive back Deon Johnson, Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academy, and speed coach Johnie Drake, founder of Johnie Drake Speed Performance in Fraser — all played a vital role in his development.

“Without them and their guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Johnson said.

While a big fish in a small pond at Grosse Pointe South, going head-to-head with NFL-caliber talent at spring practices was an early wakeup call for the young defensive back, facing likely 2023 NFL draft pick Ronnie Bell, Cornelius Johnson and now Oklahoma Sooner Andrel Anthony. It was a quick test to see where Johnson stood after holding a five-star recruiting ranking, and Johnson said it was his version of a “welcome to college football” moment.

“I would say it was more in spring ball just going up against those receivers the first couple days and having to get used to it,” Johnson said. “I think it was the first couple games, too, just getting comfortable, because I didn’t feel comfortable at first.”

Gaining experience with each snap against the receivers, it also elevated Johnson’s game to share the field with likely 2023 NFL draft pick and two-time All-Big Ten selection DJ Turner.

Earning Most Improved Player on the defensive unit for Michigan in 2021, Turner knew what it took to elevate his game and earn his spot as a starter. For Johnson, that was knowledge he couldn’t put a price on.

“I think DJ just showed me the ropes a little bit, of what you can do as an older guy and being a corner, just taking in his words sometimes and letting me know things I didn’t know as a younger guy who hasn’t been through some experiences, by being experienced and being able to talk to me about things he’s been through before,” Johnson said.

Before cementing himself as Michigan’s No. 1 cornerback and one of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten, Johnson was playing a pivotal role in the growth of Grosse Pointe South’s football program. The 2021 first team all-state honoree tallied 45 tackles his senior year, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when Johnson was not only rated a five-star recruit by Rivals and 247Sports, but the top-ranked player in the state.

Tim Brandon, Johnson’s coach at South, said it was apparent from the beginning the talent Johnson possessed.

“I think we all knew that form early on in his career at South,” Brandon said. “He’s the first South freshman skill position player to ever start his full season at South. We saw it even before his freshman season doing seven-on-sevens, and as a coach, you’re always hesitant to bring up a freshman to start, but you could just see it from day one that he was going to be special. I even said his senior year that college wasn’t his ceiling, that college was just a step. He’ll be playing on Sunday one day. You talk about five-tool players; he’s got all the tools.”

Like his father Deon Johnson, a Detroit King graduate and defensive back for Michigan from 1991 to 1994, Will Johnson was ready to claim success in Ann Arbor. During Deon Johnson’s tenure at Michigan, Michigan earned three Big Ten championships, and now, Will Johnson is only two behind.

Knowing the landscape and what to expect, Will Johnson said his father had one piece of advice for him moving forward.

“It was just do what I’ve been doing my whole life and don’t let the moment get too big,” Johnson said. “You can play with anybody, so just go out there and do what you do.”

Johnson did just that both on and off the field, transitioning to a heavier student-athlete role at Michigan.

Whether in the classroom or on the field, Johnson said he had the same mindset for his transition to college.

“I think there’s more responsibility in college and more on your own,” Johnson said. “You gotta want it more in college if you want to be successful. You want to do the extra things on your own and put yourself around people who want to be good, too. I just think the way you carry yourself in college has to be different than the way you did in high school.”

The only thing that seemed to stay the same from high school to college was his ability to take control and make an immediate impact for a program.

Already a starter in the playoffs and a freshman All-American, Johnson said a national championship and one key stat are what he has his eyes on.

“Personally, it’s just to get better every year,” Johnson said. “I want to improve on what I did last year and polish up my game. I had a touchdown scored on me, so no touchdowns next year. I want to improve all my numbers and improve any way I can.”

Five more questions with Will Johnson

What was it like getting a shoutout from Charles Woodson, especially when wearing the #2 jersey?
“That was dope. I’ve seen things where it’s, ‘Why does he have the number two on?’ or ‘He shouldn’t be wearing the number two,’ but I don’t really get into all that. It’s definitely cool to see Charles Woodson saying things about me during the game. It’s just showing that I’m making plays and people are noticing, but I try not to get into it because everybody has their own opinions out there.”


I’ve noticed you’ve done some public signings lately. What’s that been like, and what’s the craziest thing you’ve signed?
“It’s been cool. It’s good to interact with your fans who follow along with your career, so being able to interact with them and meet them has been a really cool experience. I’ve had to sign a condom before. I’ve signed a pair of buffs (Cartier glasses), one kid had me sign his arm, and I took a picture with a dog. That’s just a few things.”


Were there any defensive backs you grew up watching and idolized?
“I definitely watched a lot of Jalen Ramsey and Patrick Peterson growing up. Those are guys I watched a lot of and idolized, and I still do to this day.”


How would you describe the culture at the University of Michigan?
“I think the culture here is just, ‘Work hard.’ The responsibility you have and the commitment to the program really is a commitment to hard work, and we’re definitely going to have fun while we do it. I think that’s what it’s all about; we’re committed to each other and we all got genuine love for each other and the program. We’re all on the same page, and I think that’s what’s going to make us successful.”


What was your favorite stadium outside of the Big House this year?
“It was fun playing at Ohio State. The Fiesta Bowl was fun; it was a nice environment. We weren’t on the road a lot this year. Rutgers was surprisingly a really fun experience, too. They had a lot going on in the student section. There weren’t that many people there, but all the things going on were pretty dope, too.”