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Cornelius Johnson

Cornelius Johnson Putting In The Work To Refine His Game

  • Justin Melo
  • October 26, 2022
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Dominant big-bodied boundary receivers are all the rage in today’s pass-happy NFL. Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson is one of the most intriguing offensive prospects in the nation. 

Johnson totaled an impressive 40 receptions for 627 receiving yards and three touchdowns last season and is enjoying another fruitful campaign with 15 receptions, 225 yards, and three touchdowns through just seven contests. Johnson uses his terrific size and frame to play through contact at the line of scrimmage. He’s an above-the-rim receiver who thrives at the catch point.

The No. 78 overall player in our latest TDN100 update, Johnson recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network. Johnson discussed what he offers as a pass-catcher, how he approaches route running, what gives him an advantage in man coverage, and so much more. Johnson also previewed Saturday’s impending showdown against Michigan State.

JM: Michigan got to enjoy a well-deserved bye week after dusting Penn State aside 41-17 in a rivalry game. What’s the mindset like around the program coming out of the bye and following that victory?

Cornelius Johnson: Our mindset coming out of the bye was really that it gave us two excellent weeks to prepare for this weekend’s game against Michigan State. We know they had a bye week as well and they were going to spend that time preparing for us. We had to do the same. We’ve talked about that game. We celebrated the victory over Penn State, who are our rivals, but we quickly switched gears to prepare for Michigan State. That’s been our focus throughout the season. Our goal has been to get ready for the upcoming opponent.

JM: That’s another rivalry game on tap against Michigan State this Saturday, Oct. 29. How has Michigan been preparing for the Spartans?

Cornelius Johnson: We’ve been preparing like we always do. We have a routine and that starts with the scouting report. We study the scouting report and we watch the film on what they’ve done this season. We may revisit film from previous matchups against them to identify things they’ve done against us in the past. Our coaching staff does a great job putting together a game plan that helps us identify matchups. It’s our job to execute that on Saturdays.  

JM: We’re excited for Saturday. When we turn the tape on, we see a wide receiver that uses his size and frame to his advantage on the boundary. How do you achieve that?

Cornelius Johnson: Thank you for saying that. That’s a great question. It allows me to go over the technicalities of playing the position. I always say that I try to focus on being a great route-runner first and foremost. Once I figure that out, it becomes about getting on the same page as my quarterback. 

That sets me up to put myself in a position to get the ball thrown my way. In the past, I’ve done drills where I’ll run 20-30 routes to every area of the field that focuses on getting through the route with precision. It’s about finishing the route. When you start focusing on the catch before a ball is thrown your way, that messes up the details. I try to focus on the details from that perspective.

That’s one nugget that I’ve learned to do in the past. It made me a better route runner on the boundary. Once you get to one-on-ones with an actual defender, that’s obviously different from running routes against air (laughs). In that sense, you have to be a dog and use your body to create separation and your hands to high-point the football.

JM: I have a few follow-ups I’d love to expand on. Your toolbox allows you to defeat defenders at all three levels of the field. You’re a great route-runner, as we just touched on. How do you approach route-running? What are some of the ways you create the separation you just mentioned?

Cornelius Johnson: One thing that I’ve done in the past is focus on the details. I come to the line of scrimmage with a plan. That can be difficult at times because the defense can obviously show you one thing pre-snap and execute something totally different. They can switch up their look at the last second. That’s when you rely on repetition. I’m talking about doing something over and over again. It eventually becomes muscle memory. I take that seriously.

There’s also a form of patience involved when it comes to route-running. I try to take that into account on a snap-by-snap basis. You have to get your required depth on the route. You can’t be impatient. 

Say you have a 10-yard route, you might get the urge to rush it and run it at six-to-eight yards to try and get the ball in your hands a little faster. That’s not how it works. There are different reads and everything else going on within the structure of a progression. You have to make sure you’re not too short, but also not too deep. The timing is crucial. That’s one of the other areas I’ve been focusing on in relation to route-running.

JM: It’s funny you reference coming to the line of scrimmage with a plan and the importance of staying on schedule. Our in-house scout Damian Parson has spent a lot of time watching you. Parson notes that you do a terrific job mirroring your stem early in the route. You try to make it look the same in order to keep cornerbacks guessing. That’s one way you can combat the advantage they hold of switching their looks pre- and post-snap, as you said. Can you expand on that?

Cornelius Johnson: That’s a great point. In my opinion, you want every route to look like it’s going to be a go route. Once I come off the line, I’m sprinting to the point where I want it to look the same every single rep. That way, when you break it off, or maybe it actually is a go route, it’s not like you’re changing up your tempo and tipping your hand to the defense. You always want to stay one step ahead. It’s one way we can create advantages for ourselves as receivers.

JM: Do you have a favorite route to run?

Cornelius Johnson: I really don’t. I would never limit myself to saying I have one favorite route to run. I love them all the same. I can’t limit myself like that.

JM: You’ve showcased impressive run-after-catch ability for a receiver of your stature. You’re more elusive than most receivers your size. How did you develop that aspect of your game?

Cornelius Johnson: I used to play running back growing up. I love having the ball in my hands. I had like 45-50 rushing touchdowns in a youth league while playing running back. I’ve just tried to make sure I translated those skills into my abilities as a receiver. It comes naturally to me. Once you catch the ball in your hands, you’re a runner. 

JM: What aspects of your game did you work on the most heading into this season?

Cornelius Johnson: I spent a lot of time working on my mentality as a blocker. I felt like I left some plays on the field as a blocker last season. I missed some opportunities when I had chances to spring our running backs. I’ve been more physical at the line of scrimmage this season. I want to help spring our runners by making those blocks on the perimeter. It’s something I take pride in and I’m growing as a blocker. I also wanted to be more efficient on go balls this season. 

JM: I find that opposing defenses haven’t played man coverage against Michigan with terrific consistency. You yourself haven’t had a ton of reps against man coverage, and feel free to correct me if you feel that’s not the case. I think your opponents respect you. What are some things you can do to become more comfortable in press-man coverage if you’re not seeing it frequently throughout the course of a game?

Cornelius Johnson: That’s a really good point. I’m actually glad you noticed that because there are times when we’re seeing different variations that aren’t defined as man coverage. At times, you want to step up to that challenge and square off with man coverage. You crave those one-on-ones that allow you to play on an island and give you an opportunity to do your job and beat a defender. You have to run your routes differently when you get different looks. I might get bracket coverage. 

In relation to your question itself, I have to be ready for man coverage no matter what and react to zone if it’s zone coverage. That’s how I approach it. You have to be ready and stay ready for man coverage.

JM: Your mother is Dr. Cassandra Tribble. She graduated from U-M Medical School. How has she served as an example for you, and what has her life taught you about hard work?

Cornelius Johnson: She’s been a huge inspiration for me. I look up to her. She’s done it all. She went to Michigan and graduated with a medical degree. She put the team on her back. She’s very successful in her line of work. When I think about that, I say, if my mom did it, I can do it too. Why not me? I have to try and be better than her (laughs). I want to make her proud.

JM: We love that. Which receivers do enjoy studying? Do you model your game after anybody in particular?

Cornelius Johnson: One of my favorite receivers of all time is Larry Fitzgerald. I’ve always said that I wanna be a Larry Fitzgerald-type of route-runner. He’s one of the greatest to ever play the game. We don’t talk about Larry Fitzgerald enough. We should be bringing up his name right alongside Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. He wasn’t as flashy as those guys, but he always took care of business. I really have a lot of respect for him. He was one of my favorite receivers growing up. 

JM: I’ll give you a fun stat. Larry Fitzgerald had more career tackles than drops.

Cornelius Johnson: That’s crazy. Stuff like that is what I’m talking about. That reflects his extreme amount of focus. He was probably so focused in practice as well. I bet he was an amazing practice player with great habits. 

JM: I’ve appreciated your time today. In closing, what are your goals for the remainder of the season?

Cornelius Johnson: That’s a great question. I have some personal goals, but at the same time, we’re just focused on the school up the road [Michigan State] right now. We’ve been talking about this game since the offseason. Those guys are coming down here into our house. You know what I mean? I don’t even want to get into all that. We’re just focused on the guys up the street right now.