UM's Johnson returns from 2nd knee injury with more zip

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Drake Johnson took one hour to feel sorry for himself.

And then, when the mental fog cleared, he focused on having a surgery to repair a second anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee and facing the grueling recovery again.

Johnson, who had emerged as Michigan's most exciting and productive running back late last season, suffered the injury at Ohio State in the final regular-season game. Early the next morning, after receiving confirmation of the diagnosis, he got in his car and drove mindlessly on the highway.

"I was listening to slow jams, a little Boyz II Men, a lot of blank stares off," Johnson said Tuesday night after practice. "Probably shouldn't have been driving. Have you ever been doing something where you're just like, 'Dang, I'm not really mentally there'? Yeah, I really shouldn't have been driving.

"One hour of pity. After that, it was gone. I had to get back. I couldn't have any more negative emotions if I wanted to play, so I was like, 'It's time to get going.'"

Johnson has always been told he's too optimistic, but is that really a bad thing? His attitude has served him well, especially during his accelerated recovery. He has played in three of Michigan's four games and eased back into the rhythm of game speed. He has 11 carries for 57 yards.

The initial recovery from this torn ACL was more challenging because doctors grafted the new tendon from his right knee. Hobbled on both sides, he needed a wheelchair the first three weeks and got so bored he taught himself how to do wheelies and other tricks to stay entertained.

"I got really good, actually," he said.

He never thought his career would be in jeopardy, though, even after two ligament tears in the same knee. Mr. Positive, after all. When asked about that dire possibility, he took a moment, knocked on the wood of the case on which he was leaning in the Schembechler Hall museum. He said doctors told him that the knee looked like a "broom" when they explored it after the second tear and presumed from the evident the ligament was partially torn even before the OSU game.

Tropical storm could affect Michigan-Maryland game

Johnson never worried about one torn ACL. He hasn't worried about the second, and he's not remotely concerned about anything else that could happen. In fact, he said, he's back better than ever, faster now that he was a year ago and could run a 40-yard dash in a "4.4 low" in part because he lost three pounds and now weighs 208.

"It could happen again, and I would be like, 'Where else can you graft from? Take a hamstring!'" Johnson said enthusiastically. "So as long as they can be grafting stuff, I should be fine."

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said before preseason camp that Johnson was a quick healer and had to be held back because doctors did not want him rushing his return.

Johnson found it difficult to heed the advice of doctors, because there was football to be played.

"The doctors and trainers said we want you take it slow," Johnson said. "You've been out of the water for a while they're not going to throw you in there and swim. They're like, 'Maybe you can dip your feet, kick your feet a little bit. Now I'm kind of like submerged, like, 'OK, try and swim now dude.'"

He thought he could practice full-go the first day of camp and take a hit. He wisely was held back and after a week of practice and feeling soreness, he understood what the doctors had been advising. Two weeks later, he was cleared for contact.

Harbaugh said on Monday that Johnson's workload can increase beginning with Saturday's Big Ten opener at Maryland. It is unclear whether starter De'Veon Smith, who injured his right ankle last Saturday, will play, but in the last three weeks, the running backs have all had carries.

Johnson said he's ready for more work.

"They could give me the ball 25 times and I'd be fine, but hasn't happened yet, so I don't know," he said. "I could be saying that right now and they could throw me 25 times in the game and I'd be like, 'Oh, crap, that really hurt.'"

Michigan's backfield is full these days with Smith, Ty Isaac, Derrick Green and Johnson as the four primary backs. There has been room to share in recent weeks, and that has been evident in the rushing totals — the Wolverines have had games of 224 rushing yards, 254 and 254 the last three weeks.

Smith has started each game, but Harbaugh insists the competition is ongoing each week.

UM's loss to Utah doesn't look so bad anymore

"Whoever they pick I'm in total support of because you can't have that animosity, you can't have that, 'It should be me (approach)' because it's not supporting the team," Johnson said. "It's very anti-team. You don't want to be an anti-team kind of guy. It's your friends. We literally bled and sweat, not really cried, but it goes with the term.

"I watch them all practice. They do dope things. We're not having to have this ... contest to see who can kick each other in the shins harder."

This doesn't mean Johnson doesn't care about starting, because he does. But he has a deeper understanding of why decisions are made and supports whatever they are.

"Whatever the coaches tell me to do I'm going to do," he said. "Whatever role they ask me to play I'm going to play. Everyone wants to be the guy. Whoever is the guy, it's not going to be like 'Oh, we don't like that person because they're the guy and we're not.' It's always going to be that competition in a healthy way. At the end of the day, whoever plays, plays.

"Everyone wants to be the starter. I'm happy wherever they play me. I just want to be effective for the team. If that's being a third-down back, if that's being a goal-line back, if that's being a second-string back, whatever it is I just want to help this team in a positive manner."