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Utah Utes football: Utes put kid behind the wheel of offense

SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Johnson was walking firmly but unhurriedly through Fashion Place Mall in Murray, a couple of weeks ago, when I saw him. We talked momentarily about the football season, both past and future.

I said I thought coaches were too busy to shop during spring workouts. His answer: His money clip had broken and he needed to find a replacement.

I refrained from saying he's going to need a bigger one.

Regardless, some highly lucrative years are ahead for Utah's barely legal offensive coordinator. One way to gauge his trajectory is that at age 24 he replaced 65-year-old coaching legend Norm Chow. At this rate, he'll be a head college coach by 30; some expect he'll eventually coach an NFL team.

Johnson brushes off such grandiose talk, claiming he's just worried about the present, which is how you do it when you understand the game — both on the field and in the sports pages.

Still, a few things are obvious. He's among the youngest major college coordinators ever. Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't become a coordinator until he was 34, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was 29, Louisiana State coach Les Miles was 42. Johnson, who just turned 25, was Utah's offensive coordinator before he could technically rent a car.

As the Utes move through their second spring in the Pac-12, they're doing so with Johnson planning the attack. Yet if he wore pads, you wouldn't know him from any of the other quarterbacks. He's the youngest guy on the sidelines, not counting the graduate assistants and the kids who fetch Gatorade. Last fall, a ticket-taker at the movies asked him for ID.

If such precociousness seems shocking, Johnson doesn't seem to notice. That's how things have been since he was a kid. A native of Baytown, Texas, he recalls playing sports with his uncles when he was two or three. They kept swatting the basketball off his noggin. Still, he says, it made him competitive.

He wanted to beat the big boys.

Soon it was Johnson doing the swatting. He moved ahead a year in grade school, graduated from high school at 17 and was Utah's starting quarterback at 18. He was appointed Ute quarterbacks coach at 23, and when Chow resigned as offensive coordinator last winter to take the top position at Hawaii, Johnson became the successor.

Now he's banking big dollars at a Pac-12 university.

"It will be interesting to see what it's all like when I'm 40," Johnson says.

At the moment, he's happy being 25 since his car insurance has dipped dramatically.

"That's the best thing about turning 25," he continues.

If you're wondering if he's untested for such a job, it's true. It seems only yesterday he was leading the Utes to a Sugar Bowl victory. It nearly was. A four-time academic all-conference player, he went 26-7 as a starting quarterback. Thereafter he spent a year trying to make it in pro football — one of the few goals he's failed to reach.

He was then hired by Whittingham, skipping over the customary stops as a graduate assistant or special teams coach. The resume that got him the job as offensive coordinator read thusly: 2010-11, quarterbacks coach, Utah.

That's it. All of it.

The Utes had seen enough already.

So now Johnson has the keys to the family vehicle. Whittingham was a defensive player in college and still prefers that side of the ball, which leaves Johnson virtually free to experiment. With running backs Harvey Langi, John White and promising JC transfer Kelvin York, starting quarterback Jordan Wynn and star receivers DeVonte Christopher, Reggie Dunn and Dres Anderson returning, Utah's offense could be terrific.

So could the criticism.

No problem, Johnson says. He doesn't worry about hypotheticals.

"Not at all," he says. "Life's too short."

Even when your own life has barely begun.


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