College Football
Charles Woodson 2.0? Michigan All-American Will Johnson lobbying to play both ways
College Football

Charles Woodson 2.0? Michigan All-American Will Johnson lobbying to play both ways

Updated Jun. 6, 2024 1:55 p.m. ET

On Jan. 2, the day after Michigan outlasted Alabama to win the Rose Bowl and advance to the national championship game, star cornerback Will Johnson posted a slideshow of photos to his Instagram account. The first picture is an in-game shot of Johnson with nobody else in sight. The second picture became an immediate catalyst for Maize and Blue déjà vu: another star defensive back donning the program's historic No. 2 jersey with a rose clamped between his teeth.

Comparisons had long been drawn between Johnson, a first-team All-American whose father played for the Wolverines, and the most famous wearer of that same number, cornerback Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner who guided Michigan to its most recent national championship until the drought ended in January. Iconic images of Woodson celebrating his team's Rose Bowl win over Washington State while chomping on a flower stem have been transformed into bobblehead dolls and works of art alike.

An already indelible connection was fortified even further when Johnson hinted at an expanded role this season. Speaking at his youth football camp in Detroit last week, Johnson told reporters "there's a little buzz around the building" regarding his potential involvement as a wide receiver on offense, just as Woodson double-dipped during the '96 and '97 campaigns with 21 combined catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns. Woodson also scored on a 77-yard punt return against Ohio State during his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

"We'll wait to see how it goes," Johnson said, according to 247Sports. "It's a possibility. It's always a possibility, for sure."


At a time when the college football news cycle begins to slow, Johnson's comments triggered waves of excitement for a fan base eager to game the scenario out: Could Johnson, who played both sides of the ball in high school, become a viable option for an unproven and undermanned receiving corps that lost Roman Wilson (789 yards, 12 TDs) and Cornelius Johnson (604 yards, 1 TD) to the NFL? Could he develop into a bonafide two-way player like Colorado star Travis Hunter, who logged more than 450 snaps on offense and nearly 600 snaps on defense last season? Would first-year head coach Sherrone Moore even allow Johnson, who is arguably the best cornerback in the country and a projected first-round pick, to log extra playing time knowing the injury threat it inevitably presents?

Based on what Johnson accomplished at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, a northeastern suburb of Detroit, the skill set necessary to contribute at wideout is likely there, especially when paired with his 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame — a build that makes him taller and heavier than each of the Wolverines' projected starters this fall. Johnson, who finished as the No. 15 overall prospect and the No. 3 cornerback in the 2022 recruiting cycle, supplemented his defensive responsibilities by catching 42 passes for 667 yards and six touchdowns during his senior season, with an additional 635 yards from rushing attempts and punt returns combined. He snagged 37 passes for 600 yards and eight touchdowns the year prior.

But Johnson's deployment at Michigan never strayed beyond the secondary, where he cracked the starting lineup partway through his freshman season, and special teams, for which he made smaller and smaller contributions as his defensive importance soared. In-season practices, spring practices and offseason workouts were no exception, according to a former member of the coaching staff who spoke to FOX Sports earlier this week. The Wolverines never so much as toyed with Johnson playing offense during his first two years in Ann Arbor.

So why now? Why is one of the best cornerbacks in the country lobbying for a larger and riskier role less than a year before potentially becoming a top-10 pick in the 2025 NFL Draft? Why would Michigan's coaching staff even entertain such an idea when Johnson is the only established cornerback on the roster?

One of the reasons could be Michigan's lack of experience and depth at wide receiver following a slew of offseason departures that left the Wolverines dangerously low on scholarship wideouts during spring practice. In addition to losing Wilson (third-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Cornelius Johnson (seventh-round pick by the Los Angeles Chargers) to the pros, Michigan also bid farewell to Cristian Dixon, Karmello English and Darrius Clemons via the transfer portal — a trio of former four-star prospects. English and Clemons, in particular, were seen as significant recruiting wins for the Wolverines when they committed.

All of those exits leave Semaj Morgan (22 catches, 204 yards, 2 TDs) and junior Tyler Morris (13 catches, 197 yards, 1 TD) as the only returning wideouts who accounted for more than 32 receiving yards last season. They project as starters in 2024 alongside sophomore Fredrick Moore (4 catches, 32 yards, 0 TDs), a standout performer in Michigan's spring game.  

Subsequent attempts from Moore, offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell and wide receivers coach Ron Bellamy to strengthen the position group have been underwhelming for a team that has reached the College Football Playoff three consecutive times and won the national championship earlier this year. They added the third-most productive receiver from Youngstown State in C.J. Charleston (No. 714 transfer, No. 109 WR), who caught 33 passes for 503 yards and four touchdowns at the FCS level last season. And they brought back former three-star prospect Amorion Walker, a wide receiver-turned-cornerback, who left Michigan after the 2023 season and then re-entered the transfer portal following one semester at Ole Miss. Walker is reportedly moving back to offense during his second stint with the Wolverines.

Though Woodson remains Michigan's gold standard for contributing on offense and defense simultaneously, the career arc of someone like Walker offers another window into why Johnson might feel he can sway the coaches into using him at wide receiver. Former head coach Jim Harbaugh never shied away from experimenting with players at different positions during the latter stages of his tenure, a philosophy that didn't always work but still produced incredible results en route to winning the national title. He converted Mike Sainristil from wide receiver to an All-American nickelback. He flipped Kalel Mullings from a reserve linebacker to a contributing running back. He transformed Max Bredeson from a high school quarterback into a ferocious blocking tight end/H-back.

And while none of those players were counted on to play both sides of the ball in the same season — at least not to any significant degree during games — it's possible that some of Harbaugh's imagination rubbed off on Moore, his trusted confidant and offensive coordinator last year. Perhaps Moore can envision Johnson doing what Woodson has already done in Maize and Blue. 

"Coach Campbell always says something to me about [playing offense]," Johnson told reporters. "Coach Moore, he's a little less fond of it just because he wants me to make sure I'm still out there on defense.

"But yeah, all the offensive guys love it, and they want me to. They know what I can do. So yeah, I hope that I'm able to do it a little bit."

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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