CFP defensive MVP Will Johnson is just getting started at Michigan

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By Martin Weiss
Special to FOX Sports

Will Johnson is not surprised he’s a national champion. Two things run in his family: University of Michigan football and winning. 

His father, Deon Johnson, played cornerback for the Wolverines from 1990 to 1994, winning two outright Big Ten Championships and the 1993 Rose Bowl. That Rose Bowl featured the Big Ten champion Wolverines against the Pac-10 champion Washington Huskies. Michigan won, 38-31, in a thriller.

Will, meanwhile, has been a star since arriving on campus in January 2022, with two Big Ten Championships and a 2024 Rose Bowl win under his belt. On Monday night, just like in the 1993 Rose Bowl, the same two teams played in the CFP National Championship. Michigan won, 34-13.

Like father, like son.

“It’s amazing [to follow my father’s lead]. Hugging him after the game. All those long days and hard nights. We’d beef with each other just because I was young and didn’t want to work, but he pushed me,” Will Johnson told FOX Sports after Monday’s victory. “It’s the reason I came [to Michigan], for this moment right here.”

The younger Johnson entered Michigan with great fanfare. He was the highest-rated prospect in his class in the state of Michigan, a five-star recruit from services like 247Sports and Rivals. He dominated on the field as a true freshman, playing in all 14 games – finishing with two interceptions and a tackle for loss in the Big Ten Championship game, and a pass breakup in the College Football Playoff semifinal against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. 

Johnson earned Freshman All-American honors from Pro Football Focus, 247Sports and The Athletic, but individual awards were not satisfying for the star cornerback. Michigan is a football program steeped in tradition, full of historic sayings that resonate with the squad. Similar to returning seniors like running back Blake Corum and his defensive backfield-mate Mike Sainristil, the rising sophomore Johnson wanted to fulfill a prophecy spoken by former head coach Bo Schembechler: “Those who stay will be champions.”

“Our defense is a team defense, so it’s an 11-as-one mentality,” Johnson said. “But big-time players make big-time plays, and I did that. I’m so thankful for my teammates. They pushed me this year, and now this feels great.”

Johnson was an impact player in his sophomore campaign. He had a pick-six against Minnesota, held Penn State WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith to one catch for 6 yards, and shut down an entire side of the field for 43 of 46 defensive snaps against Rutgers. Perhaps his most impressive stat was four passes defended in the regular season: teams simply did not throw his way. 

He played well against Ohio State standout Marvin Harrison Jr. in The Game — intercepting a Kyle McCord pass on a slant and nearly returning it for a touchdown. Harrison Jr. had five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown, but three of his five catches came with another Michigan player as the primary defender. In this year’s national championship game, he intercepted Michael Penix Jr. on the first play of the second half, with the score 17-10.

“I have to credit the defensive line. They had pressure in his face,” Johnson told FOX Sports. “[Penix Jr.] was hit when threw it. Whoever the receiver was, he batted it out of my hands. I just made sure to come down with it in my hands and inbounds.”

Harrison and Penix ended their seasons in New York as Heisman finalists. If Johnson continues to grow, that’s how he could end his next season as well. He’s already one of the best football players in the country and early mock drafts have him as a consensus top-five pick.

Johnson has a compelling case to be the best player available on draft boards when eligible in 2025, and, barring injury, should be the highest-drafted cornerback out of Michigan since Charles Woodson was the fourth overall pick in 1998. 

One AFC scout likens Johnson to Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, telling FOX Sports that Johnson “is a big, talented athlete with a lot of upside. I expect him to take a step forward next year, and be one of, if not the top corner in the draft.”

“I think I’m the best corner in the class. I’m going to keep working to make sure I’m the best corner in this class next year,” Johnson said. 

The only defensive back taken first overall in history was Colorado State’s Gary Glick in 1956. After winning the national championship game’s Defensive MVP and a junior season ahead of him before he’s eligible, Will Johnson just might be the next one. 

“I can’t wait to put in this work next year,” he said, “and prove to everybody what I can be.”

Michigan’s defense is key in CFP victory vs. Washington | Joel Klatt Show

Michigan's defense is key in CFP victory vs. Washington | Joel Klatt Show

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