A former track and football star at Ann Arbor Pioneer, Johnson’s greatest asset is his versatile skill set, possessing speed, ability to run between the tackles, and a pass catcher out of the backfield.
But all of that was put on hold when Johnson left Michigan’s opener against Central Michigan with a torn ACL, his season over following just two carries for nine yards.
A disappointing setback for Johnson after earning the backup running back spot out of fall camp, the 6-foot-0, 210-pound talent used the time away from the field to his advantage.
“Having had the injury I think it forced me to take many more mental reps than I would’ve before when I was in camp last year,” Johnson said. “I was focused but not to the degree I am now obviously cause all during spring all I had to do was watch and like I couldn’t really take physical reps cause they wouldn’t let me.
“But I was taking mental reps and I would just watch rep after rep after rep and eventually it wasn’t necessarily like I was watching them it was almost like I was experiencing them from the sidelines or I’d stand behind them and I’d watch the rep and that’s how I’d get the experience.
“Getting back into things now, since the mental aspect has become stronger the physical aspect has become almost easier because now it’s just I feel like I’ve done it 100 times already.”
Now with a greater understanding of what his role is in the backfield, Johnson actually believes, despite the injury, he’s physically stronger than he was before as well.
“Going through this off-season I think was really challenging in the sense that you don’t really know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “Really you’re just like I think I’m good, I’m not sure if I’m good, there’s that struggle where I think I’m strong but I know I’m not really all the way strong.
“I think really that dynamic is what you’re fighting with while you’re in your injury process or recovery. I think most of the time, anyone who has to deal with this is going to come back stronger just because you have that drive and you never know what the circumstances will be when you come back.
“So obviously you’re going to work 10 times harder just to get back to where you were before but then you end up stronger than before so I think in that way this off-season has been good; been productive.”
Not only did Johnson have to get up to speed on his rehab and recovery but with the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges and the hiring of former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, learning an entirely new playbook became part of it as well.
Not necessarily looking to compare the system now to what it was a year ago, Johnson likes Nussmeier’s approach thus far, one week into fall camp.
“Coach Nussmeier’s system is very, very sound,” Johnson said. “It’s meant to tackle any issue that possibly comes up. I think he’s very stout in his ways maybe, he’s very solid, he wants things to be perfect, he wants it done right every time.
“And that’s good for us, we need that solidarity, we need people to push us and I think that he’s definitely the coach for that.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke offered high praise for Johnson’s return at Sunday’s media day, stating he and sophomore running back De’Veon Smith are currently ‘1A and 1B’ at the top of the depth chart.
Trying his hardest not to look too far ahead to the season opener against Appalachian State on Aug. 30, Johnson is approaching the battle one rep at a time.
“I think right now all the backs are competing right now,” Johnson said. “It’s just a day by day thing. You have every one of us competing with us, everyone working hard every single day and whether or not the depth chart stays here is not to be determined.
“I think whatever the depth chart is, whatever it may be, everyone is going to keep working hard, everyone is going to keep striving to be the best and we’re going to keep helping each other cause that’s what it’s about.”