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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson watches practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium Tuesday March 20, 2012.
Utah’s Brian Johnson ready to prove his mettle
College football » New offensive coordinator eager to prove himself.
First Published Mar 24 2012 02:19 pm • Last Updated Mar 24 2012 11:50 pm

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.

At a glance

Whittingham’s offense

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:

Scoring offense

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

Total offense

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

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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.

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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.

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