Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham entered the offseason with just one empty staff position to fill when J.D. Williams left to be the assistant head coach at UNLV. It didn't take long for Whittingham to find a replacement, hiring former star quarterback Brian Johnson to coach Utah's quarterbacks.
It is a huge step for Johnson and the Utes, as Johnson takes a unique route by skipping spending time as a graduate assistant. Johnson went in to his interview with coach Whittingham believing he would be brought on as a graduate assistant and came out as a full time position coach. "I was excited," Johnson said about his new job. "I thought that for him to offer me that position shows that he has a lot of confidence and a lot of trust in my abilities as a coach and I'm going to do my best to not disappoint him. I'm looking at it as a great challenge, a unique challenge, a rare challenge that doesn't happen a lot so I definitely have to make the most of this opportunity. It's a great opportunity professionally and a great opportunity to work for this program and with the quarterbacks, I think it's a win-win for everybody involved and I'm excited to get going."
Johnson does have the background to be a successful coach. Johnson spent five years as a quarterback for the Utes, including one season shelved with an injury where he absorbed as much knowledge as he could. Johnson has also been surrounded by great teachers in his time as a Ute, learning the intricacies and nuances of the position from some of the best quarterback minds in the game, such as Dan Mullen, Andy Ludwig, and Urban Meyer. Johnson also learned a great deal backing up former Utah star Alex Smith in 2004, and he picked up some pointers from Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy during the brief time he spent with the Packers.
"I've learned a lot, I learned a great deal from each one of those guys," Johnson said. "They all presented different challenges and different coaching methods so I'm going to kind of take a little bit of each guy and create my own style and put my own personal twist on it. Being close with coach Mullen and coach Ludwig still, I talk to them on a regular basis. They've taught me a great deal of things, but I think the number one thing is how dedicated, how organized, and how detailed you have to be to be successful. You put those three things together and it will make your transition more successful."
One of those coaches believes that Johnson has a bright future in the field. "I'm real happy for Brian and the University of Utah, it's a great hire," Ludwig said. The current California offensive coordinator has a great deal of respect for Johnson. "Brian's a super young man, has a great aptitude for football and I'm sure he'll be an excellent football coach. Maturity and intelligence were the first things that struck me when I met the young man, and through daily interactions with him I grew to appreciate that that much more. His intelligence and his work ethic that made him so successful as a player will be a great catalyst into his coaching career."
Ludwig also believes that Johnson's age and his career success at Utah - the winningest quarterback in school history, Sugar Bowl MVP, and Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year - will help him relate to his young charges. "I think Brian will do a fine job relating to the quarterbacks; he has tremendous communication skills, he'll have a high level of 'relatability' with his age, they'll have great respect for him because of his credentials as a player there at the University of Utah and again, because of his work ethic and dedication and intelligence and approach to the game." Ludwig also has some advice for his star pupil. "Just continue that work ethic and dedication to the game of football that he showed as a player."
Johnson is already familiar with his quarterbacks, as he spent some time around the program in 2009. Utah has three quarterbacks currently on the roster, senior Terrance Cain, sophomore Jordan Wynn, and redshirt freshman Griff Robles. "Obviously, I think Terrance and Jordan both have a lot of experience now, they've played in games, been in tough spots and fought through some adverse situations," Johnson said. "I love their competitiveness. They both have different skill sets; Terrance is a little bit more athletic and can run around whereas Jordan sits back there and can make some more throws, so it will be interesting. I think both of those guys are very talented and can be successful at this level. Griff has not had a ton of experience but he is very talented guy. He's a big guy, a smart guy, I think he'll be a very coachable guy and a guy that can come in and provide some excitement for us as well. I'm looking forward to getting to work with all three of those guys."
One of those guys is Wynn. The sophomore went 3-2 as a true freshman, starting Utah's final five games. Wynn had some growing pains, but finished strong throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in Utah's win over Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. Wynn had a strong reaction to the news of Johnson's hire. "Shocked, kind of, actually," Wynn said. "I knew he wanted to come on the staff and I knew we wanted him, but just how he jumped up so fast. I was thinking more of like he would become a graduate assistant first and work his way up. But obviously he has loads and loads of experience and intelligence at the quarterback position. I've already talked to him and gave him congrats and we talked about how he's here to help me out and we're both excited about it and hopefully he helps me out a lot. He had a tremendous career at Utah and has a lot of knowledge. I had a chance to talk to him about the season and I'm really excited to work with him."
Utah fans know that Wynn can throw the ball, but one weakness Wynn showed was as a ballcarrier, especially in an offense that is designed to have the quarterback as a running threat. Johnson knows Wynn has the ability to run, and laughed hard when he was asked if he can teach Wynn how to run. "I think that's a key part of playing quarterback, being able to get out of the pocket and make some plays with your legs when needed," Johnson said. "[Wynn] has more than enough ability to do that, he just needs to determine that fine line of when to run, when not to take a sack, when to throw the ball away. Understanding situational football I think will make him a better football player."
Johnson was impressed by Wynn's play in the bowl game, especially overcoming a rough start that included several bad throws and an interception that was returned for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead for Cal. "That was huge for him to overcome that and fight through adversity. That's something that you want to see in your quarterback," Johnson said. "You want to see a guy who is going to keep playing no matter what the situation is, that he is going to keep competing as well. You like to see that not throw in the towel down 14-0 in the first quarter. It could have turned bad real fast but he kept trying and chipped away at them, he understood that there was a lot of time left and he made the necessary plays to get them back into the game."
Recruiting will be another area where Johnson can help the Utes. The Texas native can show and tell others exactly what it is like to come to Utah and succeed on an off the field. While Johnson does not know where he will be recruiting, he already has plans on how to sell Utah to recruits. "Well, I think that I can be living proof of what happens when you come to Utah, especially with me coming in at such a young age (17 when he played as a true freshman in 2004), playing here, having a successful career, and now having the opportunity to come in and coach at my alma mater," Johnson said.
Johnson, however, will focus on more than just the on-field play of his quarterbacks and recruiting. Johnson believes that there is more a position coach can do besides teach the fundamentals of football. "The thing that coach Whit told me was that 'it's not really about the X's and O's, but you've got to be able to take care of your players. This program is about the players,'" Johnson said. "I want to see the quarterbacks be efficient and succeed academically, socially, and athletically. I think that the relationship between a position coach and a player is a very unique relationship and there is a very special bond that you create with all of those guys; it almost becomes an extension of your family to a certain extent because you're around them every single day. The bottom line is that I want those guys to succeed in all aspects of their lives whether it be academically, socially, or athletically. I think if I do that, I'll be fine with that."
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