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Utah Utes football: Assistant coach Brian Johnson is still just a kid

At 23, former quarterback is younger than 16 of the players on the Ute team

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SALT LAKE CITY — For most of his life, Brian Johnson has been younger than those around him.

Because he was smart enough to skip first grade, he was always the youngest among his peers. That was a big disadvantage in sports, but Johnson was talented enough to earn a college scholarship to Utah at age 17. Even with sitting out a year with an injury he graduated from the U. at age 21.

Now at age 23, Johnson may be the youngest fulltime assistant college football coach in the country. At least that's what a national media member told coach Kyle Whittingham earlier this year.

"And I believe everything I hear," Whittingham said with a smile.

But it is unlikely there is a younger full-time assistant coach at a major college than Johnson, considering that most players don't graduate until at least age 22. And then they have to work their way up as a graduate assistants or assistants at smaller colleges before advancing to a major college staff.

One thing's for certain — there aren't any coaches in college football that have 16 players on the team older than they are, as is the case with Johnson at Utah. Heck, Johnson isn't even old enough to rent a car, for crying out loud.

For Johnson, being the youngest guy in the group comes naturally by now, even though he admits he hasn't always liked it.

"I was always younger than everyone and didn't have a license until I was a senior in high school," he said. "When I was 17, I wanted to be a junior in high school. When I was a freshman, I couldn't go out with the other guys here because I wasn't 18 yet. It was an adjustment, but it ended up working out."

After leading Utah to a 13-0 record in 2008, Johnson served as a grad assistant for Utah last year. But after cornerbacks coach J.D. Williams left for UNLV, Johnson was quickly named to the Ute staff. He took Dave Schramm's place as the quarterbacks coach, while Schramm was put in charge of the tight ends.

"He's a guy that has intelligence, energy and character — three things we look for when we hire assistants," said Whittingham. "Brian carries himself very well, he's articulate, well-spoken and from a recruiting aspect that's critical."

Johnson joined a staff with coaches ranging in age from 30 (Morgan Scalley) to 66 (John Pease). However, he says his fellow Ute coaches have treated him great and don't call him anything like "junior" or "sonny boy."

"A huge positive has been that they all know me, so they've seen me grow from a boy to a man over the past six years," Johnson said.

Johnson says the biggest adjustment for him has been recruiting.

"I love football and that part is extremely fun for me and I understand it," he said.

"With recruiting, I've never done it before, so it's been sort of baptism by fire. Going out last spring helped me out a ton and I'll definitely be prepared now. That was a new dynamic, going out recruiting and understanding that's the lifeblood of the program. You've got to get good players to win."

Johnson's main recruiting areas are Dallas and New Orleans. It would seem that he would get Houston, the area where he grew up, but Scalley is already entrenched there and has brought in several players from Houston over the past couple of years.

So what does Johnson do about a car when he has to make all those recruiting visits in the offseason?

Actually Johnson is able to rent a car because of what he calls, "a special school contract," but otherwise he wouldn't be able to, since 25 is generally the minimum age for rental car companies.

Johnson has been on the job for seven months and Whittingham is just as pleased with him as he was when he quarterbacked the Utes to 27 victories.

"Brian is doing a fantastic job for his inexperience," he said. "He's got two great guys to work with (Jordan Wynn and Terrance Cain) and a third guy (Griff Robles) who's going to be a great quarterback as well. He's doing a real nice job."

Johnson has the respect of the players despite the fact that he is so close in age. (Wynn is only three years younger while Cain is just 17 months younger.)

"That almost makes it better," said Wynn of Johnson's youth. "It's been good with him being so close to playing because he brings in that perspective. He has good energy and is a good teacher. He's really good at teaching decision-making and reading the defense and taking what the defense gives you."

At one point, Johnson thought he might play professionally for a few years. But he's happy to get a jump-start in the coaching profession.

"I'm enjoying it and it's been a lot of fun hanging around the guys and watching them get better each and every day," he said. "It's a blessing. I can't thank coach Whitt enough for the trust and faith he instilled in me to give me such a huge responsibility at such a young age, but I'm definitely ready for it."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com