SALT LAKE CITY — So the Utes are turning their offense over to the kid this season. Brian Johnson, who at 25 is just six months older than H-back Max Moala and less than half the age of head coach Kyle Whittingham, is the University of Utah's new offensive coordinator.
Only four years ago, Johnson was the team's quarterback. He was running the offense then and now he's doing it again, this time from the sideline. Talk about a bold move.
Faced with the considerable challenge of Year 2 in the Pac-12, Whittingham has pinned his offensive hopes on a guy who has coached for two years.
Sitting in his office on a hot summer day, Whittingham is cool about all this. He's heard these questions a hundred times. He knows the risk he is taking and he feels so confident in his decision that he almost yawns when the subject is raised again.
"First of all, Brian has a feel for the game that few coaches have — a sense for situations and strategy," says the coach.
He points to last December's Sun Bowl as Exhibit A. Faced with third down and goal at the 8-yard line, trailing Georgia Tech by three points in overtime, the Utes called timeout to discuss the next play. Norm Chow, the OC at the time, was up in the press box and Johnson, the quarterbacks coach, was on the sideline. Chow is a venerable play-caller with NFL and national championship experience, but Johnson dared to venture a suggestion on the headset: Iso draw — a running play with the H-back throwing a lead block on the linebacker.
Months later Johnson would explain, "I had a gut feeling about that play. We were in a similar situation before the half. We came out in an empty set and they dropped eight and we ended up not getting anything with another play. I noticed we had a good matchup on the Iso block."
Now, staring at that third down and the game on the line, Johnson told Chow, "I like Iso draw."
"All right," Chow said, "let's go for it."
John White ran into the end zone and the Utes claimed a season-ending 30-27 win.
Whittingham, a coach's son who was raised around the game at the college and NFL levels, believes that calling plays is an art, not a science. It can't be taught. It's innate. Good play-callers must be able to mentally multi-task. They have to think several plays ahead. As the current play unfolds, they have to have several plays ready to call for the next play, based on the situation, down and distance, field position, tendencies, personnel and their own instincts. And he has only seconds to decide and get the play to the huddle while an entire stadium awaits his decision. Not that there's any pressure.
"Calling plays is a chess match," says Whittingham. "You have to think two or three steps ahead. Your mind has to move fast. Some people have it and others don't."
He thinks Johnson belongs to the former category. It's not as if Whittingham has never seen the kid perform. Johnson called several plays last season. He called plays in spring practice and scrimmages.
"It seems to come natural for him," says Whittingham. "He called a bunch of our plays as our quarterback."
The 2008 Sugar Bowl was not only the biggest game and biggest victory in school history (over legendary Alabama), it was also one of the most brilliantly game-planned and executed offensive games in recent memory. Johnson, the Utes' quarterback that night, called virtually every play from the first quarter until midway through the second quarter at the line of scrimmage.
"Our game plan was a fast-paced tempo," recalls one of Johnson's receivers that game, Bradon Godfrey. "We wanted to catch them off guard — we wanted to catch them in the same defense. So we went no-huddle a lot. Brian stepped up to the line and looked at the defense and signaled the play to the receivers and audibled the play to the linemen. He made those decisions on the fly on the ball, and he did a great job of it."
When Chow left the Utes following last season to become the head coach at Hawaii, the offensive coordinator's job was vacant again. In his seven years as head coach, Whittingham has gone through four coordinators — Andy Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Schramm/Aaron Roderick (co-coordinators), and Chow — two of whom left the program to coach elsewhere.
Whittingham took his time finding Chow's replacement — nearly two months.
"This was not a knee-jerk decision," he says. "We did our homework. We researched plenty of people. We spent hundreds of hours on this. We went over and over what was going to be the best fit for us."
Whittingham was not deterred by Johnson's age or perceived inexperience. As Whittingham likes to tell the media, Johnson has always been precocious, always years ahead of his peers. "He's a special individual," says Whittingham. "He's not your run-of-the-mill 25-year-old."
Johnson grew up in Crosby, Texas, the oldest of three children. His father Stacey, a former UTEP football player, is a chemical plant operator; his mother Shonna a nurse. The kids were taught to answer "yes, ma'am" and "no-ma'am," a habit Johnson retains today and which never fails to surprise and charm recruits' parents. Shonna has emphasized education, and it seems to have paid dividends. Johnson's sister Bianca graduated from the University of Texas and is working in Austin. His younger sister Britteny just finished her freshman year at the University of Houston.
Then there's Brian.
He supposedly learned to read by age 2. After attending preschool for a couple of years until the age of 5, he tested so high that he was skipped over kindergarten and first grade and placed in second grade. He's been fast-tracked ever since. He made his first campus visit to Utah at 16 and signed a letter of intent. He not only graduated from high school at 17, he graduated a few months early for his class, which allowed him to enroll at Utah in January and participate in spring practice.
At 17, he saw action in 10 games as the backup to Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft the following spring. As an 18-year-old sophomore, Johnson became Utah's starting quarterback. En route to becoming the winningest quarterback in school history, with a 26-7 record, he also graduated in four years.
"When he was a freshman I remember thinking that this guy carries himself well," says Whittingham. "I was impressed by his demeanor. He seemed to be in control, composed, confident. He was and is mature beyond his years."
Johnson's entire playing career seemed to reach a perfectly timed crescendo in the Sugar Bowl, which matched No. 6 Utah and No. 4 Alabama. Johnson passed for 336 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 upset and was named the game's Most Outstanding Player.
After the game, Johnson was detained in the locker room by media interviews. After he finished answering questions, he walked outside and discovered that the team bus had returned to the hotel without him. It's a story that is told frequently in Ute circles, the humor and irony of it being irresistible. He began walking down the streets of New Orleans to the team hotel, his Sugar Bowl Trophy in hand and a backpack slung over a shoulder.
"Didn't you just play in the game?" a stranger asked.
Johnson finally called Whittingham, who dispatched a family member to pick him up.
"They forgot about me," Johnson says, smiling.
Not when it came to coaching jobs. The Utes had a coaching vacancy as soon as the Sugar Bowl ended, and Whittingham wanted to hire Johnson immediately. Johnson was interested, but felt compelled instead to try out for the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
"I knew when he was a player that he would make a fantastic coach," says Whittingham. "He thought like a coach. He was a student of the game. Nobody studied more film as a player than Brian. It was hours and hours. But he wanted to give the NFL a shot, which I understand. The window for coaching will still be there down the road."
Johnson's tryout with the Green Bay Packers was short-lived He was later signed by the New York Sentinels of the United Football league and released six weeks later. He immediately returned to Salt Lake City and to the Utes, although not in an official role.
"He just hung out that season," says Whittingham. "He was in the office with us, just absorbing everything. He asked us, 'Do you mind if I continue to learn?' He wanted to be part of the program."
Says Johnson, "I loved being around the program. It was a unique experience to see it from that angle — not as a coach or player. We had an understanding (that he would coach). It was something I wanted to do. (Whittingham) has always known."
As fate would have it, another coaching vacancy opened up on the staff after the 2009 season. Whittingham met with Johnson for five hours to discuss offensive philosophy and to pick his brain. At one point they watched video of Utah's game against Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl and they role-played — Whittingham was a quarterback and Johnson the coach. This allowed Whittingham to see how the kid would teach players, lead meetings, detect nuances of the game and attack various defenses, etc.
After hiring Johnson as quarterbacks coach, Whittingham cautioned him that, given his youth — he was the same age as many of the players — he would have to be especially vigilant in maintaining the coach-player relationship.
"We had that discussion with him when I hired him," says Whittingham. "It's not a buddy-buddy thing. You've got to guard against that and separate yourself. You're the coach and they're the players. He's handled it very well. The players respect him."
Two years later, the offensive coordinator job was open again and Whittingham began his search. After considering many options, including Roderick, he became intrigued with Johnson. They met three times formally, each leading to lengthy discussions. During a recruiting trip to Louisiana, they discussed Johnson's offensive philosophy as well as his management and organizational skills and what he believed was required to make a successful coach.
A few weeks before his 25th birthday, Johnson was hired as the offensive coordinator, with an annual salary of $225,000. He is believed to be the youngest FBS offensive coordinator in the country.
"I felt extremely blessed and fortunate," says Johnson. He has not been oblivious to the media's focus on his age. "I see why people say it's a big deal," he says, "but I've been around this program for eight years in multiple roles — as a player and a coach and observer. I've seen the program from a lot of different angles."
Says Godfrey, Johnson's former teammate, "It is no doubt a bold move. I'm as anxious as anyone to see how it plays out. I expect there will be a learning curve and adjustments, but in the long run he'll do just fine. Coach Whit saw something in Brian since he first met him."
Certainly, Johnson has good rapport with the head coach. As Johnson puts it, "Whit was evaluating a lot of people. I knew he was considering me for the job, and I wasn't surprised. I have a great relationship with him. The biggest thing is he has a lot of trust in me. I've known him since I was 17, so I've been around him my entire adult life. He had a huge impact on my growth as a person. I genuinely respect and care about him."
Whittingham has seen big things ahead for Johnson for years and prepared him for it. When he hired Johnson as quarterbacks coach, he reminded him to carry himself in a certain way because he was going to advance in the coaching profession and "you never know who's around."
Johnson has remembered that advice. A couple of years ago, he was at Draper Park with his girlfriend when he asked a teenager to stop swearing. The young man responded by spewing racial taunts. Johnson seethed — clearly he could have handled this foul-mouthed punk easily — but he forced himself to walk away.
"That's exactly what Coach Whit was talking about," says Johnson. "If I was a young hot-headed 18-year-old, it would have ended differently. I've got to think about the big picture."
Godfrey, who remains close to the game through a professional training service he offers for aspiring football players, believes Johnson's promotion will pay off in many ways. "It makes sense when you think of all the things he brings to the program," he says. "He relates well to the guys because of his race and his youth. That will help in recruiting. He'll know how to teach and talk to them. And the way he sees things on the field is unbelievable. It all translates into a great OC."
Johnson, who married earlier this summer, concludes an interview by saying, "I'm obviously blessed to be in this position. I realize that every day. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for the blessings that have been given me.
"But I don't dwell on it. In this profession, nothing is guaranteed forever. I learned that from Whit. You can always get better. I'm constantly evaluating myself and trying to get better. To this point things have been good, but if you get lax in preparation or focus in any area of your life, it can all change."