February 1, 2012

Drake Johnson is determined to prove his worth

Today, four-star Bri'onte Dunn is enrolled at Ohio State while three-star Drake Johnson will sign with Michigan. For some, that's disappointing news, but the simple fact is U-M wanted Johnson before Dunn re-upped with the Buckeyes ...

Johnson's list of suitors entering his senior year wasn't impressive, but the 6-1, 200-pounder was handicapped significantly by the offense - the spread - he played in during his first two seasons at Ann Arbor Pioneer.

"I'm not trying to make excuses but it wasn't a good fit for me at all," Johnson said. "I like playing in a pro-style offense with a lead blocker that I can follow, read how the linebackers react to the fullback and then cut off that block."

Johnson is not a spread running back, but he did his best to adapt, rushing for 1,518 yards and 19 touchdowns on 253 carries (6.0 yards per rush), while hauling in 19 passes for 357 yards and four scores during his sophomore and junior campaigns.

When Paul Test, who had Johnson as a freshman, took over as varsity head coach in 2011, he spoke to the Johnson family about the role he envisioned for the underutilized ball carrier.

"Drake's dad asked if his son would have a shot at a big season, if we'd go back to the power and counter, and I told him my offense will suit Drake to a T," Test said. "He's a downhill runner. He's fast and athletic, faster and more athletic than he's given credit for, but he's at his best when he runs with toughness, in between the tackles.

"He can go wide when he needs to, but he needs to follow his blockers and then use his power and speed to create big plays.

"That's what Brady Hoke is looking for in a running back. That's what Michigan running backs have been for 20, 25 years, dating back a long ways when Coach Jerry Hanlon came over to Pioneer in 1981 and taught us how to power block. That was their staple and it became our staple."

In his senior season, Johnson led the state in rushing with 2,800 yards while scoring 37 touchdowns on 343 attempts (8.2-yard average). He produced 11 100-yard games, including seven 200-yard performances and three 300-yard outings. And he totaled 576 yards rushing and scored eight touchdowns in Pioneer first- and second-round playoff wins.

With his individual success and the success of Pioneer, which went 9-3, advancing to the Division I state quarterfinals, Johnson was named to the Associated Press Division I-II all-state first team and was chosen the AnnArbor.com Washtenaw County Player of the Year.

"I think he's been a little overlooked by the recruiting guys and some of the fans," Test said. "But Coach [Fred] Jackson's son is in the Ann Arbor school system, and even though Drake didn't have a phenomenal junior year, Michigan was aware of him, and liked how he ran with toughness and determination.

"Coach Jackson came out and saw him when we played Temperance Bedford in the second round of the playoffs and Drake had more than 300 yards rushing [348 on 36 carries] and scored four touchdowns against a good defense, and after Coach Jackson saw that, Michigan was ready to pull the trigger."

Johnson would make his commitment four days later, on Nov. 8.

"I've known Coach Jackson for something like nine years and when I was younger, 10, 11, 12, he'd tell me how I was going to be his starting running back one day, but it's just talk," Johnson said.

"I really didn't think I was going to get that chance coming into my senior year, but with how I was playing, I was hearing from Iowa, Syracuse, Illinois and Indiana, and I was just hoping that Coach Jackson would come back and say that to me one more time, and be serious.

"Michigan offered me after that game, and at first I thought he was still joking with me. But when he said he was serious, it was unbelievable - I was definitely going to take him up on that."

Fast enough? He thinks so. Tough enough? He thinks so. Talented enough? He definitely thinks so.

"He's a smart kid, cerebral," Test said. "He knows what's being said about him but he's not going to let anyone else tell him how good he can or can't be."

"I feel like I have something to prove," Johnson added. "Some sites say I'm a two-star, others a three-star. Why? Because I didn't go to all those 'look-at-me' camps to have the size of my chest and biceps measured? I'd much rather show what I can do on the field, and I think if you put me up against any other back in the country, even if he's a five-star, I'm just as good or better."

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