Monday, May 20, 2013
New title, same drive from Brian Johnson
By Kevin Gemmell
It's 8 p.m. in the Louisiana Bayou, and Utah's co-offensive coordinator is just leaving a high school spring game. Notes in tow, the grind never ends.
Brian Johnson didn't always have the "co" before his title. It's new. Happened a couple of months ago when Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham decided the offense needed a new identity and some fresh blood, so he hired Dennis Erickson to be co-offensive coordinator.
Johnson barely had the position to himself for a year. But in that one year, the Utes offense continued a downward trend that began even before he was running the show. Missing a bowl game for the first time in nine years didn't sit well either. Hence, the Erickson hire.
For the youngest coordinator in the nation, this could have been a devastating blow to his confidence. Whittingham had shown great faith in Johnson by elevating the once-Utah-star-turned-quarterbacks-coach so quickly. And yet almost as rapidly as he ascended to the title of offensive coordinator, many of those responsibilities were revoked in favor of Erickson -- a seasoned coach with a national championship to boot.
Johnson was candidly introspective when talking about what he learned about himself in 2012.
"I could write a book about the amount of stuff I learned," he said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to do what I do and be around these guys. Aside from the football stuff, there is so much more to the managerial aspect and being involved with every single aspect of the game that I didn't have as a position coach. Just understanding that was a big learning curve.
"And there is a ton of stuff that goes into scheming and game-planning week-to-week and picking up little nuances here and there about what you're doing as an offense and how you respond to what the defense does. It's a balancing act. Some valuable lessons were learned when things didn't go the way I would have liked them to go."
He won't make excuses, though it wouldn't be totally unjustified if he did. In his first year calling the shots, the Utes had to replace two all-conference offensive tackles, he lost his starting quarterback in the second game of the season and his 1,000-yard rusher battled injuries all year.
To say the dice were loaded would be an understatement.
"Things aren't always going to go by design," Johnson said. "You have to be able to adjust and roll with it. That's something we all had to learn."
Just four years earlier, Johnson was quarterbacking the Utes to a 13-0 record and a BCS-busting 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, earning the game's most outstanding player and capping a career as Utah's winningest quarterback (26-7).
Two years later he was a position coach at his alma mater, one of the nation's most successful non-BCS programs. And two years after that he was offensive coordinator for a Pac-12 school.
This isn't a guy who drops his head when things get tough.
"I believe in what we're doing offensively," he said. "It works. You see people around the country doing it and it works. Confidence isn't an issue for me. It's a matter of getting some consistency with what we're trying to do. Getting some consistency at quarterback. That's what we need to do and it looks like we're moving in the right direction.
"It's a pleasure working with coach 'E' everyday. I love his personality and his demeanor. It's been great having him around our program and our guys. Anytime you can have someone like that and draw from their experiences and talk about certain things, it's a huge positive."
So Johnson keeps grinding. Keeps learning from his mistakes. Keeps handling whatever adversity gets thrown his way. There isn't time for sulking. Not that he would. It's not who he is or what he's about. For guys like Johnson, confidence isn't something that's lost and found like pennies on the street. It's just always there.
"There were definitely some frustrating times last year," he said. "But, like in life, you learn from those experiences and you find ways to get through it. There definitely were some things that were extremely frustrating . But you push through and you try to get better. And we will."