Pinpointing exactly what the “it” is that makes Brian Johnson successful is difficult to do. His mother likens it to a willingness to learn, his former teammate Zane Beadles thinks it’s a natural leadership ability, his high school coach believes it’s instinct and his former offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, believes it’s intelligence.
Ask anyone who has spent any length of time around the 25-year-old, who was recently named the Utes’ offensive coordinator, and you are likely to get a different opinion.
But everyone can seem to agree on two things: Johnson has “it,” whatever it is, and he will be successful as Utah’s offensive coordinator.
Outsiders might view Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s decision to tab Johnson — who is believed to be the youngest coordinator in the country — as a huge risk.
But those who know Johnson best say the Utes and their fans have no need to worry about his capabilities.
“He has such an intelligent football mind, I know he is going to succeed,” said Mullen, who recruited Johnson to Utah when he was the QB coach and is entering his fourth year as the head coach at Mississippi State. “He understands the game so well and is so mature, I forget how young he is sometimes.”
That maturity trumped age for Whittingham when he decided to promote Johnson. Experience doesn’t matter in his estimation — production does.
Viewed that way, it’s tough to question Johnson’s development.
Johnson has grown from an inquisitive child wanting to know the “why” to everything to being Utah’s winningest quarterback to being the figurehead of a Pac-12 offense.
Being in such a highly regarded position alone is demanding. Holding such a job at Utah is particularly so. Johnson is the fifth coordinator under Whittingham, who is known for being hard on his coaches.
While others might not have liked the pressures and gone elsewhere, Johnson says he can handle it — just as he has previous challenges.
“Coach Whitt told me three years ago when I got hired as the quarterbacks coach to always carry yourself like a coordinator because I was going to advance,” Johnson said. “I’m realizing the amount of stuff and responsibilities that go with this job and what is expected, but I feel like I’ve always been prepared for this situation.”
Still the same guy
Johnson said he doesn’t feel life has changed for him much since taking the new role because he’s always been on a fast track. It’s a track has suited him since he was born, his mother, Shonna, said.
As a youth Johnson had a naturally inquisitive mind that his mother never tried to quiet, no matter how relentless he was.
“A simple yes or no never sufficed for him,” she said. “He always wanted to know how things worked and why. He wasn’t one of those kids who would be OK with the answer ‘Because I said so.’ He always wanted to know why. I tried to encourage that; that if he had a question, to keep searching and researching until you get the answer you need.”
Johnson took that quizzical mind and used it to his advantage on the football field.
Raised just outside of Houston in Crosby, Texas, Johnson starred at Robert E. Lee High, where it seemed he spent as much time studying film as he did studying his schoolwork.
“The intelligence he had even then for the game, he knew what he needed to do with the ball and how to direct an attack and stay poised,” said Johnson’s high school coach, Dick Olin. “He knew all the strengths and weaknesses and played to the strengths of his team.”
Those same characteristics made Johnson Utah’s winningest quarterback, finishing his career with a 26-7 record, including the undefeated 13-0 run in 2008.
That year he endured skepticism and criticism as Utah’s offense at times seemed inept. But the Utes came out winners every time, including Johnson’s ultimate moment when he led the Utes past Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Watching that game, Johnson’s high school coach saw glimpses of the mastery that had made him such a special player years earlier.
“We had a series of five plays called ‘Raider’ we would keep running until we either scored or got stopped,” Olin said. “When Utah went into that hurry-up offense, that is what I saw in him. Alabama couldn’t get set and he went right down the field and scored. That was as good of a game as I’ve seen anyone manage.”
In the end Johnson was left standing alone with the trophy, literally. The rest of the team took off to celebrate the win, mistakenly leaving Johnson behind at the Superdome. So he walked the trophy back to the hotel by himself through some iffy parts of downtown New Orleans.
A new challenge
The path that stands before him looks just as unsettling, with many possible foes waiting in the shadows.
How can a guy with just two years of experience craft an offense that can win in the Pac-12 when the program itself is still learning about the league? How will he manage a possible quarterback controversy with upstarts Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen pushing the injury-prone Jordan Wynn for playing time?
How will he keep returning running back John White happy and find room for highly touted signee Kelvin York? How can he keep Whittingham from meddling in his business to the point where Johnson is nothing more than a yes-man?
Moreover, is Whittingham nuts for promoting Johnson? After all, he said he had more than 70 applicants with impressive pedigrees. But in the end, Johnson won him over.
“After I looked at everything, he was the best candidate,” Whittingham said. “It’s just the way he conducts himself.”
Johnson said he’ll do all things to make the Utes successful by using the same attitude that made him successful on the field.
“The biggest challenge we have is creating a culture where we are aggressive and thinking outside the box,” he said. “We have to be innovative and be demanding with the players.”
Pushed to reveal more about his coaching philosophy, Johnson offers little in the way of specifics, other than saying he has been influenced heavily by his former coordinator, Mullen, and he plans to use a multiple attack.
“You have to be aggressive in football these days,” he said. “The days of slugging it out are over. You have to take some risks and not be afraid of thinking outside the box and coming up with better ways of doing things.”
It’s a vision thing
If Utah fans are a little uncomfortable with the fuzziness of such statements, those who spend significant time with Johnson say they shouldn’t fret.
Johnson was the same way on the field, said former offensive lineman Zane Beadles. Yet, he always put the Utes in position to win.
“He has something you can’t quantify,” said Beadles, who will be protecting Peyton Manning this season as starter on the Denver Broncos’ offensive line. “It’s one of those things you either have or you don’t, and he has it. He is a humble guy and I know he is going to go into it by taking the team approach, getting the opinions from everybody on the staff and doing what is best for everyone. He’ll put his ego aside. I have faith in him for sure.”
If there is any place he could take a misstep it’s in doing too much, Mullen said. Johnson likes to be in control so much that he still considers the years when he couldn’t drive the most frustrating period of his life. “Bumming rides off everybody when I was a senior, it was the worst,” he said.
Yet now the irony of his position is that he is so much in charge of the Utes’ offense he needs to let go of many areas, Mullen said.
“We all learn you can’t micromanage everything,” Mullen said. “You have to let the other coaches worry about their positions; he has to take care of the quarterbacks and then on game day, it’s your show as a coordinator. Being able to shift responsibility to other coaches and focus on the play-calling is going to be a big thing. That is what separates the good coordinators from the bad ones.”
To that end, Johnson knows he still has a lot to learn. But learning, maturing and using that knowledge has always been a strength.
“I don’t want this whole year to be about me,” Johnson said. “It’s about the players and putting them in roles where they can be successful. That is my job, finding their competitiveness, creating a successful format and helping them strive to be the best they can be every day.”
Brian Johnson becomes the fifth offensive coordinator under Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, following in the steps of Andy Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Aaron Roderick and Norm Chow as Whittingham continues to experiment with the offense. Here is a look at how productive the Utes’ offense has been under Whittingham:
Year Avg. Natl. Rank
2011 25 74
2010 33.1 23
2009 29.9 34
2008 36.9 15
2007 26.2 68
2006 27.9 33
2005 30.0 36
Year Avg. Natl. Rank
2011 310.9 109
2010 389.0 57
2009 389.5 54
2008 400.9 35
2007 369.9 79
2006 368.4 41
2005 473.0 12
Brian Johnson file
• Signed letter of intent with Utes as 16-year-old
• Played 10 games as a freshman
• Finished as Utah’s winningest QB with 26-7 record
• Has bachelor’s in mass communication
• Hometown: Crosby, Texas
• Born: Feb. 16, 1987