PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall says senior free safety Scott Johnson "is similar to a coach on the field." Cornerback Brandon Bradley calls Johnson "the captain of the secondary."
While no one is saying that the outcome of last Saturday's 54-28 loss to Florida State would have been any different had Johnson played, the Cougars certainly missed him.
And they're certainly glad to have Johnson back in the lineup this week as BYU hosts Colorado State. After suffering a concussion against Tulane and being sidelined against the Seminoles, Johnson has passed protocol and has been cleared to play.
Not being able to contribute against FSU was difficult, Johnson said.
"It was so hard. It was one of the hardest things I've gone through in football. I felt like I could have made a huge difference. But I want to be with my teammates, win or lose. To sit on the side, and not be part of it, was hard."
And now he's glad to be back on the field.
"It's exciting. (Returning to practice on Monday) was like being a little kid, running around and having fun," Johnson said. "It's good to be back out here. It's good to realize that you can't take it for granted."
The free safety position Johnson plays is crucial for BYU's defense.
"The position, not in reference to the player, has to get everyone in the right spots, has to be able to see the whole field and know what every single person on the field is doing around them," Johnson said. "He has to adjust the fronts or the coverages according to motions or to different formations that come up."
Besides possessing intricate knowledge of the defense, Johnson also brings experience and leadership to the Cougars.
"It's just a different level of confidence. There's a continuity of calls, how quickly he can adjust other players, see what the opponent is doing," Mendenhall said of Johnson. "He's similar to a coach on the field. How much that affected the outcome, I don't think we can predict that. But certainly, you'd like to have the same players playing together as much as possible. So we're anxious to have him back."
"Scott's a very good football player. He's basically the captain of the secondary," Bradley said. "He tells us where to go and what needs to be done. It's always a big loss when a player like that isn't on the field. I'm looking forward to having Scotty back this next game. When you have a great player that you're used to playing with, and he's not there, there's a feeling of knowing he's not there."
True freshman Craig Bills, who starred at Timpview High School last year at this time, took Johnson's spot in the lineup. For Bills, getting his first start in LaVell Edwards Stadium was a thrill.
"It was a lot of fun. The week leading up, I was really excited. My coaches, and (fellow safety) Andrew (Rich) and Scott, prepared me for that week," he said. "The atmosphere was awesome. Playing against athletes like that was amazing for my first start."
Of course, the result wasn't what he wanted. "Obviously, there were flaws that we had. Florida State really put our weaknesses out on display," Bills said. "I felt I would go undefeated at BYU."
Between series, Bills consulted with Johnson on the sideline.
"I'd come off the field and ask him how it was looking and he'd give me his insights," Bills said. "He's like a second coach because he knows the defense so well."
Mendenhall was happy with Bills' performance, given the circumstances.
"Craig Bills as a true freshman graded at over 80 percent and did a really nice job," he said. "(Bills was) not nearly as confident and precise at aligning the rest of the defense, but in terms of holding on and trying to do what he was supposed to do, I was pleased with his first game."
Johnson said Bills' task, being thrust into the role of essentially being the quarterback of the defense, was a lot to ask — particularly against a team like Florida State.
"It's extremely hard, especially for a true freshman. My hat's off to him," Johnson said. "He played hard and he played well. You can't expect much more from what he gave on Saturday."
Both Johnson and Rich spent a lot of time tutoring Bills during fall camp. No one knew he'd get the chance to start so early in his career.
"He's done as good as you can do. He spent hours and hours with me in the film room," Johnson said. "We've watched a lot of film together. We've gone over our defense, we've gone over what other teams do. He's done a good job."
"I thought Craig Bills did a great job coming in for Scotty and controlling the secondary," Bradley said. "I'm looking forward to the success that Craig Bills will have as he continues to learn the defense and catches up with the speed of the game."
Cougars on the air
Colorado State (3-0) at BYU (2-1)
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: The mtn.
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AM