- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quickly promoted and then just as quickly twice demoted at Utah, Brian Johnson will once again be viewed as a smart, up-and-coming coach next year at Mississippi State. In fact, he would still be a smart, up-and-coming offensive coordinator at Utah if his quarterback these past two seasons had been Dak Prescott, the dual-threat talent he's inheriting with the Bulldogs.
Heck, reporters would probably be wondering when he'd become the nation's youngest head coach after previously being its youngest offensive coordinator.
Yes, there are good coaches and bad coaches. We get that. Some coaches fail to do their job well. But it's more than a coincidence that those considered good coaches typically have the best players, often because of dumb luck. Maybe Phil Jackson is an NBA coaching genius, a Zen master enlightening players with daily haikus and self-help books, but his best skill was winding up leading teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaq.
The biggest reason the Utes' offense has mostly floundered the past three seasons as a Pac-12 member has been poor and middling play at quarterback, Johnson's responsibility. The biggest reason for poor to middling play at quarterback, however, is the designated preseason starter at the position couldn't stay healthy. Point a finger at a lack of a capable backup at the position if you want. That's fair, though that falls more on recruiting than coaching.
But do you think Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah history, would be in Starkville right now if Jordan Wynn and/or Travis Wilson never missed a snap?
This is not to say Johnson is merely a victim of circumstances. In big-time coaching you are either moving forward or you are failing, and Johnson going from Utah's offensive coordinator in 2012 at age 25, to co-offensive coordinator with Dennis Erickson at age 26, to only QBs coach under new coordinator Dave Christensen at age 27 sure seems like a career tumble. There is no doubt that head coach Kyle Whittingham earnestly wanted Johnson to be successful, both on a personal (he won a Sugar Bowl over Alabama with Johnson as his QB) and professional level.
But Whittingham is feeling a bit of heat in Salt Lake City, whether that is reasonable or not. As members of the Mountain West Conference, his Utes were a Top 25 team, potent on both sides of the ball. In the Pac-12, they have yet to post a winning conference record and their offense has ranked ninth, eighth and eighth in the conference in scoring over the past three seasons.
Whittingham's relentless tinkering with his offensive leadership -- six different play-callers in six years -- might seem impatient, counterproductive or even desperate, but it emerges from his desire to win. His detail-oriented mind sees things he doesn't like -- play calls, overall scheme, practice conduct, leadership style -- and he isn't afraid of making aggressive moves to change things.
What that also does is put the pressure entirely on him. The traffic in and out of the offensive meeting room has been too transient for there to be another scapegoat. Whittingham has been the constant.
Johnson's departure does un-complicate things, if just a bit. Christensen took over an offensive staff featuring three men who'd once sat in and were subsequently removed from his office. Now there's just two: Erickson and receivers coach Aaron Roderick.
There is no question who's in charge of the offense. No co-coordiantor titles to speculate about. Whittingham is all in with Christensen, an offensive line specialist who will call plays. Whittingham hopes Christensen can recreate the magic he had running a potent Missouri offense from 2001 to 2008.
Yet Christensen, even if he's the Garry Kasparov of Xs and Os, won't be successful without a good quarterback. Three years with Chase Daniel starting at Missouri cemented Christensen's reputation. If Travis Wilson's career is indeed over due to preexisting medical condition discovered late in the 2013 season, then the Utes prospects for 2014 are deeply uncertain.
Meanwhile, Johnson reunites with Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited and coached him as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator. Further, Johnson also will be familiar with Mississippi State's co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, who also were on Meyer's staff at Utah.
While being an offensive coach in the SEC West isn't the easiest job, particularly in Starkville, Johnson is getting a good opportunity to redirect the trajectory of his coaching career.
Utah moves on with Christensen, one voice speaking for the Utah offense.
And that voice is likely echoing inside his head as you read this, "Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback."
993dTed Miller and Kevin Gemmell
1139dTed Miller and Kevin Gemmell