As offseason physical therapy for a minor ankle injury continues to sideline Will Johnson, there has been a bit of a mantra associated with the recovery.
“We just don't wanna push it,” Deon Johnson, the father of Michigan’s top-ranked prospect in the 2022 class, told Eleven Warriors.
Johnson’s timeline for full recovery from the ankle sprain is mid-February, as he should be fully good to go by then. We could be looking at a similar timeline for Johnson’s college decision, but that remains much more shrouded in a bit of mystery as a not-pushing-it mindset has emerged for the five-star cornerback.
As we touched on earlier this week, Johnson has unofficially cut his top five down to three – Ohio State, USC and Michigan – with Oklahoma and Arizona State not being looked at as seriously as they once were.
The Trojans have thrust themselves into the upper echelon here based on a few things:
- An impactful visit over the weekend to SoCal where he was able to visit USC’s campus and get a better feel for what it offers.
- Sit-down conversations during that trip with fellow five-star cornerback Domani Jackson and his family about what USC offers. (Jackson is set to commit on Saturday, and USC is the likely move.)
- A relationship with USC associate head coach/cornerbacks coach Donte Williams that has continued to progress positively for the Trojans. Williams has the strong backing of the Jackson family. That’s been built on the backbone of a relationship between Williams and Jackson that extends back to when Jackson was a seventh-grader being recruited by Williams when he was coaching at Oregon.
“They think Coach Williams does a good job of developing players,” Deon said. “He does a good job of developing relationships with the parents and the players as well. They just kind of felt like they could trust what he says and that he’s gonna do what he says he’s gonna do. It’s a situation where they feel really comfortable with him, but they’ve known him for a while. He’s been recruiting Domani for a while.
“Will really likes Donte. They got on a Zoom call and talked football. They broke down film and he talked about his coaching philosophy and how he coaches his guys. He showed him some of the drills and things like that that he has his guys go through. William thinks he does a good job. Based on what we’ve seen, he feels like Donte does a good job of developing his guys.”
The whole package-deal notion in recruiting is an overrated, too-often-talked-about storyline that rarely comes to fruition. There are legs to it with the Jackson-Johnson tandem, and Johnson did say recently (albeit hesitantly) that the package deal with the two is still a possibility here.
2022 Grosse Pointe (Mich.) South five-star CB Will Johnson has a new leader, but the race isnt over -- @Willj1228 talks @domanijackson1 package deal and decision timeline in clip below. Full story after the jump (VIP) https://t.co/IYiKNimKV9 pic.twitter.com/zXEeNvecfS— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) January 19, 2021
That package deal, though, is not one of the primary factors weighing on Johnson’s decision, in my opinion. There are more pressing questions at hand here for the country’s No. 4-ranked cornerback and No. 8 overall player.
“He’s big on making sure that he goes somewhere that’s gonna develop him. Not just working on some of his strengths but also some of the things he feels he needs to get better at,” Deon said. “He really wants someone who’s gonna help him do that. He’s not looking for somebody just to accentuate the positives. He’s looking for somebody who tells him what he needs to work on and what he needs to get good at and someone who’s really gonna help him do that.
“He doesn’t just want someone who tells him he’s a good man-to-man player, we’re gonna make you the best man-to-man player. He wants somebody that says, ‘hey, when we play zone I’m gonna make sure you’re the best zone corner in the league as well, not just the best press man corner.’ You know? He wants someone who’s gonna develop him all around as a defensive back, not just in one phase.”
We know who that coach would be for USC (Williams), and we know who that coach (or coaches) would be for Ohio State (Ryan Day and Kerry Coombs).
As Jackson’s dad Randy told Eleven Warriors before, Ohio State sends “a full-court press” at the guys they want the most. That’s how it’s been with Johnson, as Day “reaches out all the time,” Deon says.
“Coach Day’s really involved in the recruiting process,” Deon said. “(Will and Coombs) talk all the time. They text each other several times a day. They do reach out, and Coach Coombs reaches out to him. From my understanding, they talk or text two or three times a day.”
We have already discussed at length how Coombs’ style could help turn Will into a pro, and Coombs has already made the pitch to Will that he could be a first-round draft pick under his guidance.
Those conversations are still ongoing between the two (as is the relationship-building process), and Johnson is continually asking Coombs (and Williams) questions about coaching philosophies and styles, figuring out drills each one runs and what each one’s future defense will look like. It’s all in the process of making the most well-informed decision possible.
And now it’s Michigan’s chance for a rebuttal. As we wrote on Tuesday, Michigan has fallen from its spot as the leader in Johnson's recruitment, but it has not fallen out of the race. It's still in that unofficial final three, and it has its shot at getting back to the top.
The Wolverines’ new defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, did what he was supposed to do by reaching out quickly to the state’s top-ranked prospect after he officially became the new leader of Michigan's defense.
“He said he has some exciting coaches who are gonna be joining their staff, and he wants to build that relationship,” Deon said earlier this week. “I know they’re coming in kind of late so he just wants the opportunity to communicate and try to build a relationship right quick.
“He’s intrigued to see what kind of staff they put together. Just like any kid, they want to know what the deal is and who’s gonna be there. With the NFL-style coaching, there are apparently gonna be at least a couple guys they’re bringing onto the staff with NFL coaching experience so we’ll see who they bring in.”
We now know perhaps the most important “exciting coach,” at least in Johnson’s recruitment, who Macdonald was referring to.
Michigan announced Wednesday that it had hired Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist – who has already reached out to the Johnsons – as its co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Linguist has made a positive first impression there, and I think they will give Linguist some time to get to know them and vice versa. (Both from a coaching style/philosophy standpoint and a person-to-person relationship standpoint.)
So, again, we will likely play the waiting game here for Johnson’s decision. There’s a bit of mystery here, but it really doesn’t feel like a decision is coming in the next week or two from what I’m told. The longer the recruitment goes, the better Michigan's chances.
Michigan has new coaches who are playing from behind in the relationship-building department. Can they make up enough ground to ascend back to the pole position over the Buckeyes and Trojans? Will Linguist and Macdonald’s combined NFL experience be enough to overcome established relationships the Johnsons have held with Day and Coombs for much longer? And would it even be enough to overcome the reputation of Coombs, who has one of the best track records of pro development for cornerbacks in college football over the past 10 years?
Eventually we'll find out the answers to all those questions. But that's why they call it the waiting game.