By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – Before Saturday’s homecoming game, Michigan running back Drake Johnson had never gotten more than three carries in a game. Going into the game against Indiana, Johnson had a total of five attempts for 41 yards this season.
Derrick Green had logged 82 carries, De’Veon Smith had 70, and Justice Hayes had 35.
Saturday, Johnson erupted, racking up 122 yards on 16 carries and scoring a pair of touchdowns, including his first ever for the Wolverines.
As an Ann Arbor native who played his high school football right across the street, Johnson could hardly believe it when he first strode into the end zone.
“I got the ball and then it literally just looked like a gate just opened up, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can just run right through there! This looks perfect!’” Johnson said excitedly. “There was no one in sight, so I just took it. I saw someone out of the corner of my eye to my right, and I was like, ‘Okay, time to put on the speed, I’ve got to get to the end zone before I mess up this opportunity,’ so then once I got there, I just was – at first I didn’t really realize I scored. I was like, ‘Is this real?’ because going across the street to coming here, I was like, ‘You know, this is just another touchdown in high school,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, no, this isn’t another touchdown in high school. This really just happened in the Big House.’ So that was really nice.
“A lot of times you score touchdowns when you’re at Pioneer [High School] and you’re running this way, so you see the giant screen, the M, and you’re like, ‘Wow, it’d be great to score a touchdown in there!’” Johnson added later, “and then today when it happened, I was like, ‘This is actually happening,’ so I was kind of geeked about that.”
Johnson’s mother is the cheerleading coach at Michigan, so Johnson grew up going to games and imagining one day playing in the Big House.
“When I was younger, she would always take me to games, and I was kind of a dumb little kid, so I’d talk mess to the team on the sidelines, I’d be like, ‘I’m going to play here, I’m going to be better than all of you,’ but I was 8, so what else do you expect from an 8-year-old?” Johnson said with a laugh. “So coming from being 8 to like 20 now and playing here, it’s just like – it’s insane thinking now, 12 years later, I’m actually the one playing.”
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke did not say whether Johnson’s performance will lead to more carries for him in the future but said Johnson’s game was impressive.
“He made some very good cuts, he accelerated through cuts, and that’s some natural ability that he has,” Hoke said. “He’s more of a slicer than the others, and I think the one thing he does have is he’s got a very good burst when you look at the gears, and then he’s got the ability to take it the distance also.”
Johnson went the politically correct route regarding whether Saturday shows he deserves more playing time.
“Every game I’m just going to say if the coaches put me in, that’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “If they don’t put me in, it happens like that, but at no point am I going to sit here and be like, ‘It’s all about me.’ It’s not about me. It’s about what’s best for Michigan. If this game it’s best for Michigan that I play, it’s great. If it’s best for Michigan that De’Veon, Derrick or Justice plays, that’s what needs to be done, and I’m completely understanding and accepting of that.”
As a true freshman in 2013, Johnson suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against Central Michigan, and the injury undoubtedly put him behind the curve. He said he never stopped believing he would eventually get an opportunity, however, even though the setback was difficult.
“I’m not going to lie – it sucked,” Johnson said. “Tearing your ACL isn’t any fun, but I think just with all the people around the program who told me, ‘Keep it going, keep learning, keep getting mental reps, doing everything you can so that when they do call your number, you can take advantage of it.’ I think today, just all that came into fruition, so I think that’s great.”