Not many coaches have risen up the ranks as fast as Brian Johnson, the fast-tracking former Utah quarterback who will be coaching on the Philadelphia Eagles’ sideline in Sunday’s Super Bowl. The man who started it all will be in the stadium, watching from the stands with his wife. Kyle Whittingham, the Utah head coach, recognized Johnson’s coaching potential long before anyone else and doubled down on it by turning his offense over to him when he was barely older than the players he was coaching.

“He’s going to be a head coach in the NFL in the next few years. He’ll probably be a (offensive) coordinator first. This will be his next move.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on Brian Johnson

Whittingham says more is to come.

“He’s going to be a head coach in the NFL in the next few years,” he says flatly. “He’ll probably be a (offensive) coordinator first. This will be his next move.”

NBC reported two weeks ago that the 35-year-old Johnson had been interviewed by the New York Jets for the offensive coordinator position.

Reporter Adam Schefter, the ultimate NFL insider, also believes Johnson, the Eagles quarterback coach, will be a head coach in the NFL soon.

Why does Whittingham — a man who is measured in his pronouncements — believe Johnson is head coaching material? “His success, first of all,” he says. “Look what he’s done with Jalen Hurts (the Eagles star quarterback). “And look at his trajectory and what he’s done. He keeps moving up. He’s intelligent, he’s personable, he’s well-spoken. He’s on the fast track.”

It was Whittingham whom Johnson turned to years ago for career advice. He had finished a great playing career at Utah and had tried to make a go of it in the pro ranks but failed to catch on with teams in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. “He met with me after he was cut,” recalls Whittingham. “I suggested he go into coaching. He said that would definitely interest him.”

As noted in a 2012 story, after his failed NFL attempt Johnson returned to Salt Lake City and spent the 2009 season with the Utah team in an unofficial (unpaid) role. “He just hung out that season,” said Whittingham at the time. “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.”

A coaching vacancy opened on the staff after the season. Whittingham met with Johnson for five hours to discuss offensive philosophy and to test his football acumen. At one point they role-played while watching video of a Utah-Cal game — Whittingham was a quarterback and Johnson the coach. This enabled Whittingham to see how Johnson would teach players, lead meetings, detect nuances of the game and attack various defenses, etc. He passed the test. Whittingham hired him as the Utah quarterbacks coach.

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“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do once I finished school,” Johnson told Schefter on NFL insider. “Luckily coach Whittingham gave me an opportunity and I jumped right into coaching, and I’ve never looked back. It’s been a huge blessing …”

His rise since then has been astounding by any standard in the coaching profession. After observing Johnson as quarterbacks coach for two seasons, Whittingham promoted him to offensive coordinator, making him the youngest OC in the nation, two weeks before his 25th birthday. He was only a few months older than some of the players he would coach.

Co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson watches quarterback Travis Wilson during University of Utah football practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He’s a special individual,” said Whittingham at the time. “He’s not your run-of-the-mill 25-year-old.”

Whittingham confesses now that he was a little premature in putting Johnson at that position at that time, but such was his confidence in his prodigy, which has been confirmed in the years since then. The Utes struggled on offense that season, so a year later Whittingham coaxed Dennis Erickson, the hugely successful former college and NFL head coach, to serve as co-coordinator with Johnson and to mentor him. The offense struggled again the following season, and in the offseason Whittingham hired another OC and returned Johnson to quarterback coach.

“That was not his fault,” says Whittingham. “That one’s on me. I was a year ahead of making that move (moving Johnson to OC). I had to find a way to give him more help.”

Johnson chose instead to coach quarterbacks at Mississippi State under head coach Dan Mullen, a former Utah offensive coordinator who had recruited him as a prep player. During his three years there, Johnson coached Dak Prescott, the current Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Things happened even faster after that.

In 2017 Johnson was hired as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Houston, and a year later Mullen, having taken over as Florida’s head coach, hired Johnson as his QBs coach. Two years later he promoted him to offensive coordinator, and the following season — just 11 years after he had begun coaching — he was hired by the Eagles as quarterbacks coach.

“Brian has always been ahead of the curve,” says Whittingham, noting that Johnson arrived at Utah at the age of 17 and won the starting quarterback job as an 18-year-old sophomore. “He’s always been ahead of things,” says Whittingham. “… When he was a freshman I remember thinking that this guy carries himself well. I was impressed by his demeanor. He seemed to be in control, composed, confident. He was and is mature beyond his years.”

He’s also benefited from rubbing shoulders with accomplished people — Whittingham, Urban Meyer and Mullen. He also shared a house with Alex Smith when he first arrived at Utah as a 17-year-old. Mullen told him to do everything Smith did and “he’d be all right.” Smith became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and went on to have a fine NFL career, and he and Johnson developed an enduring friendship (they were in each other’s weddings).

Whittingham noted Johnson’s understanding of and “natural feel” for the game when the latter was a player at Utah. He was impressed with Johnson’s performance during the unbeaten 2008 season, and never more than during a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It was perhaps the most brilliantly game-planned and executed offensive game in Utah history and Johnson called virtually every play at the line of scrimmage from the first quarter until midway through the second quarter. The Utes won 31-17.

Utah quarterback Brian Johnson hugs Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham after beating Alabama winning the 2009 Allstate Sugar Bowl, at the Superdome, in New Orleans, Friday Jan. 2, 2009. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I knew when he was a player that he would make a fantastic coach,” said 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.”

So here he is, in the Super Bowl with the Eagles in his second year in the NFL. When he joined the team in 2021 he already had a history with the Eagles’ quarterback. Hurts’ father had coached Johnson’s teams in high school, and Johnson had known Hurts since he was 4 years old.

Hurts was just beginning his second season when Johnson showed up. Hurts had shown flashes of greatness in four starts during his rookie season, but he performed poorly late in the season and was benched. He was a strong runner but a weak passer, completing a league-worst 52% of his passes.

Johnson has been credited with Hurts’ turnaround. In Year 2, Hurts completed 61% of his passes and totaled 3,144 yards, 16 touchdown passes and nine interceptions and won 8 of his 15 starts. “QB coach Brian Johnson had a huge impact on Hurts in 2021,” read the headline on the Philly Sports Network. Head coach Nick Sirianni liked Johnson’s influence on Hurts enough that in Week 8 he moved Johnson from his customary game time roost in the press box to the sideline for more timely interactions with his quarterback.

“(Johnson) has been a great influence on Jalen on the sideline,” Sirianni told reporter Jack Connell. “… Brian just brings a wealth of knowledge in a lot of different areas; blitz protection, quarterback play, different styles of quarterbacks. So, yeah, Brian’s a major, major key.”

Hurts blossomed into a strong passer in Year 3 and became the most dangerous player in the league although a shoulder injury slowed him late in the season. He ran for 760 yards and 13 TDs and passed for 3,701 yards, 22 TDs and six interceptions while completing 66.5% of his passes.

Johnson is living up to the promise that Whittingham saw in him years ago. The coach and his former assistant and quarterback still communicate via texts and calls. Johnson’s wife is from Utah, so he visits the state, as well. On Sunday Whittingham will be on hand to watch his protege. “I’m so proud of what Brian does,” he says.

Philadelphia Eagles’ Brian Johnson walks off the field before the NFC championship game NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia. | Matt Slocum, Associated Press