Not only did he embrace it, he took it and ran away it – literally – as he led the Wolverines with 16 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns in U-M’s 34-10 homecoming win over Indiana at Michigan stadium. Which are all career-highs for the redshirt sophomore.
“I’m not going to say it wasn’t fun,” Johnson said. “It was nice. I really enjoyed it. But I think it’s really just focusing on the next week. This is just one game. I think getting high on any one game is dangerous. We got to focus on Northwestern.”
Not bad for a local kid who starred for Pioneer high school, which is located across the street from Michigan stadium. He grew up in a house full of Wolverines, his father, Michael, and mother, Pamela St. John, both attended U-M. His mother is entering her 31st season as the cheerleading coach at Michigan.
“Since before I was born,” Johnson said of his mother’s tenure at U-M. “She’s been there like 30 years. I kind of grown up doing the Michigan thing.
“When I was younger she used to always take me to games. I was kind of a dumb little kid. I would talk to mess to the kids on the sidelines. ‘I’m going to play here, I’m going to be better than all of you.’ I was like, 8, what else do you expect from an eight-year-old? So come from being eight to like 20 now playing here, it’s like insane, thinking 12 years later I’m actually the one playing.”
He even chose to wear No. 20 in honor of his childhood idol, former Michigan running back Mike Hart. So naturally, Maize and Blue is in his blood.
However, Johnson’s road to the field hasn’t been easy since he signed his national letter of intent in 2012. He redshirted his first year at Michigan. And in his second, he was listed as the No. 2 RB at the time, before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Michigan’s season opener. But Johnson, however, never gave up, and stuck with his rehab to get his shot that he had on Saturday.
“I’m not going to lie, it sucked,” Johnson said. “Tearing your ACL is never fun. But I think just with all the people around the program who told me ‘Keep it going. Keep learning. Keep mental reps. Doing everything that you can, so when they do call your number that you can take advantage of it.’ [Saturday], all of that came into fruition.”
Late in the first quarter, starter De’Veon Smith was walked off the field with an apparent leg injury. And after a series of non-successful runs with Justice Hayes, Johnson was inserted into the Wolverines lineup, and instantly made an impact with an 18-yard run, as U-M would eventually score to up their lead to 17-0 before the half.
Then, well, Johnson took off in the second half. He scored his first career touchdown on a 10-yard run as he sprinted to the left side of the end zone untouched to put U-M up 24-3. A touchdown that turned into a surreal moment, for the player who dreamed of scoring multiple touchdowns in Michigan stadium growing up.
“At first I didn’t even realized I scored,” Johnson said. “’Is this real?’ From going across the street to coming here, I was like ‘this is just another touchdown like I was in high school.’ I was like, ‘Wait, this isn’t another touchdown in high school. This really just happened in the Big House.’ That was really nice.”
Johnson may have separated himself as a homerun threat that Michigan’s offense has been in search of all season. And proof of that, was in Johnson’s last two plays of the game.
With the game in doubt, Michigan was clearly trying to run the clock down and get out the game with a much needed win. Johnson had plans of his own. On a run to left, Johnson hit the hole, going 32 yards to the IU 16 before being pushed out of bounds, showing off much needed balance of power and speed the Wolverines offense has been lacking from their running backs all season.
On the very next play, Johnson ended up with possibly his best play of the game – and his career up to this point – as he ran up the middle, cut right, shook a Indiana defender, sped up and busted into the end zone for Michigan’s final score.
“I just see myself as, if there is ground to take, I’ll take it in anyway,” Johnson said. “I’m just going to try to get up the field as fast as I can. In any type of possible way. So be that through someone, around someone, I’m just going to do whatever it takes.”
With his career-best game in the books, Johnson’s dream has become a reality, and with Michigan struggling to find a consistent running game all season: Should Johnson be the starter when U-M travels to Northwestern next Saturday?
“If they say ‘Drake, we need you carry the ball 40 times.’ I’ll carry the ball 40 times. If they need me to carry the ball four times, I’ll carry the ball four times. If they don’t want me to carry it – I won’t carry it,” Johnson said. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to support it 100-percent.”
That decision is not Johnson’s to make, but he certainly made much more interesting for Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose 4-5 Wolverines need to win two of their last three games to become bowl eligible.
“Very happy with his performance,” Hoke said afterwards. “Very impressed with it. I know will look at the tape and make those judgments. Pretty excited about what he did today.”
Hoke added: “We’ve always thought that he was talented. I think he took advantage of an opportunity and did a heck of a job.”
While he had to wait to get his opportunity, Johnson -- who is the definition of humble -- has never worried he would get his shot.
“No, not really,” Johnson said, when asked if he ever thought if he would get an opportunity to play. “It was just play every day. Work hard every day. If they call my number, they call my number.”
After Saturday’s performance, his number is sure to be called a few more times moving forward.