Doug Robinson: Utah Utes football: 'The Kid' Brian Johnson is at the controls of Utes' offense

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

Former University of Utah football quarterback Brian Johnson is the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation Friday, July 27, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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."

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