Sports Illustrated's director of recruiting John Garcia has been following Grosse Pointe (Mich.) Grosse Pointe South cornerback Will Johnson's recruitment for a long time now and holds the rising senior in high regard. He sees Michigan landing Johnson as a big deal for several reasons and think the top flight cover man can be valuable immediately.
Wolverine Digest: So how good is Will Johnson? What are his biggest strengths? What’s he still working on?
John Garcia: In short, very good. He's the best athlete on his high school team and it shows on both offense and defense, as he lines up all over the place and makes plays. Of course he projects at defensive back and works primarily at cornerback despite a legitimate 6-2 or better frame. Johnson's length, savvy and ball skills — traits every program is looking for — are what serves his game best. He is a long strider who runs well enough to play the deep ball while countering with solid transition game talent to play physical at the line of scrimmage and in run support. The moonlighting at wide receiver on offense further validates Johnson's ability to attack the football and potentially create turnovers, something becoming the most important element of secondary play.
Johnson is a ball hawk without much debate. He's got Big Ten bloodlines and a head-turning frame that creates an effortlessness on tape. Things look easy for the junior against in-state competition, but in projecting him to the highest level it drives curiosity about his quickness. It appears he is asked to contend with wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and in the boundary, down the field, but there aren't considerable samples of his ability to come out of his break, downhill, and drive on the ball. It's true in part because he is so dominant at the line and shadows so well on intermediate routes. We'd call it more of an unknown compared to an area for improvement. If he's to play cornerback against Ohio State's pass catchers, that question will need to be answered well before he moves to Ann Arbor.
WD: Is it surprising that Michigan was able to land him given last season and all the changes on the defensive coaching staff?
JG: To a degree, yes. Michigan is the legacy program and in-state school but there were two factors present that push these types of prospects elsewhere — elite suitors and negative perception. U-M and the chatter around Jim Harbaugh over the last six months, in addition to some staff turnover, wasn't exactly peachy. Combine it with Ohio State, USC and others pushing for his commitment and a formula for him being the latest to leave the state existed. But new assistant Mo Linguist and the time Johnson gave him, helped Johnson come to a relatively quick decision despite package deal talk earlier this year with Trojan commitment Domani Jackson. Optically, it wasn't a huge surprise, but digging into the details suggests otherwise. Just look at the 2021 cycle, where several top in-staters ended up elsewhere.
WD: How big was the Mo Linguist hire with Johnson and overall?
JG: Linguist was the key here. When we spoke to Johnson in late January, about a month before the commitment, we got the sense the ball was in the new coach's court. His buddy Domani Jackson, who we mentioned was a package deal prospect with Johnson, made his commitment the same day we spoke to the new U-M pledge. But hours prior, Johnson said he would take a step back to give Michigan and Linguist their due relative to the change in direction in the secondary compared to finalists USC and Ohio State. It's clear that over the next five weeks, after a strong first impression, Linguist put in the work to solidify the top defensive back on the Wolverine board. Johnson was a must get for Michigan and the staff got it done.
WD: How close do you think Johnson was to going to either Ohio State or USC?
JG: Fairly close, especially around the New Year and then with Jackson picking USC. But in speaking to Johnson, he brought up long distance more than once — not great news for the Trojans amid the pandemic recruiting restrictions no less. That shifted my perception to the classic Big Ten battle, where Ohio State has been able to bring in these lengthy, prototypical corner types in seemingly every cycle. That's where the legacy, in-state status and the push from Linguist and his NFL experience combined for a pitch Johnson couldn't push back on.
WD: What happens now with Johnson as a recruiter, maybe most specifically with Domani Jackson? Anything left there?
JG: The two are close, no doubt, and each has mentioned working on the other going forward, so that may be a wash before all is said and done. I see each elite DB sticking with the local options they committed to this winter. But elsewhere, keeping an in-stater like this at home with more than seven months before the Early Signing Period begins is critical. Imagine U-M landing Donovan Edwards at this time last year.
It will help with local talent more than anything else but will also serve as the most tangible validator for Linguist and the defensive staff in place. The combined pitch should work well within state lines in particular given the strength of the recruiting class residing on the defensive side of the ball