U.'s Johnson will redshirt; Ratliff, Grady fight for job

Published: Friday, Aug. 18 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

With starting quarterback Brian Johnson, left, redshirting, Brett Ratliff, middle, and Tommy Grady will battle for the starting job. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) With starting quarterback Brian Johnson, left, redshirting, Brett Ratliff, middle, and Tommy Grady will battle for the starting job. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
Utah's quarterback derby is now a two-man race.
Brett Ratliff and Tommy Grady are still in the running. Brian Johnson is not.
"Brian is going to redshirt. We made that decision," head coach Kyle Whittingham announced after Thursday's scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium. "It's a conclusion that we came to last night."
Johnson, who is working his way back from a serious knee injury, was involved in the discussion. So, too, was Johnson's father, Stacey, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
"I think it's the right decision. As for me not being able to play, that will be the tough decision," Johnson said. "I prayed about the situation . . . I'm a man of faith and I think God has a plan for me.
"I've just got to go out there and work my butt off to get healthy and get 100 percent," he added. "There's no doubt in my mind when I get healthy and get 100 percent that I'll tear it up."
Whittingham said it was a medical decision to redshirt Johnson.
"He was having a nice camp but the knee was getting sore (with) a little bit of swelling," Whittingham said. "It just wasn't quite right."
And that, he vowed from the beginning, would determine whether or not Johnson would play this season.
"If it's not 100 percent perfect, we were not going to force the issue. We have the luxury to take the medical redshirt," said Whittingham, who explained that no risks were going to be taken. Especially with what he considers the best quarterback situation in the country as far as depth.
"That leaves Brett and Tommy to battle it out for the No. 1 and No. 2 spots," he said. "So it cleans up the picture quite a bit."
A decision on who'll start in the Sept. 2 season opener at UCLA could come as early as this weekend.
"We'll evaluate this scrimmage," Whittingham said. " I think they both looked very good today."
With Johnson watching from the sidelines, Grady and Ratliff split the 70 snaps in the second scrimmage of camp.
"I think Brian's knee was hurting a little bit. I think it was the best decision for him and for the team this year," Grady said. "I'm trying to learn as much as I can every day. Rat's doing a good job. We're helping each other out and running this offense."
Grady, a junior transfer from Oklahoma, completed 11-of-16 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns in a scrimmage that pitted ones against twos.
"I feel like I'm doing everything I can do," Grady said. "I come out here every day and just try to do my best."
Ratliff, a senior who guided the Utes to victories over BYU and Georgia Tech last season, also had a solid outing. He was 7-of-16 for 116 yards and three TDs.
"I think I did a lot better today," said Ratliff, who wasn't totally pleased with his performance in last week's first scrimmage. "I did good, I didn't do great. There's still things I need to improve on."
That's always the case, he added, even in his strong showings against BYU and in the Emerald Bowl.
Whittingham, however, liked how the offense executed. Derrek Richards and Freddie Brown Jr., each caught two touchdown passes, while Marquis Wilson and Matt Sims each had one. Mike Liti rushed for a score.
"I thought it was a big step forward (today) based on what we had the first scrimmage," said Whittingham, who was pleased with how the defense tackled, the lack of penalties, clean work by the secondary and the kicking game.
"It's time to start building confidence in both units (first and second)," Whittingham said. "They did a nice job."
Defensively, the Utes were led by Martail Burnett and Brice McCain. Burnett had a sack and blocked a punt, while McCain had an interception and a pass break-up.
Kicker Louie Sakoda had a good day as well. He made six PATs and connected on three field-goal attempts.
"We got a lot of work done, Whittingham said.
The biggest task, however, may have been narrowing the quarterback field.
Johnson surprised many with his mobility less than 10 months following surgery that normally takes 12-18 months of recovery.
"Brian's overall well being and health was the No. 1 factor in making that decision," Ludwig said. "He's done an awesome job. He is going to be a great quarterback. He came back to camp in great shape. His arm is stronger, and he's faster."
Johnson's surgically repaired knee wasn't completely cooperative, though. It puffed up and became sore on occasion despite no contact and limited reps.
Ludwig noted it was a tough, difficult decision to redshirt Johnson. The health of his knee, obviously, was the overriding factor.
"Our concern was if he broke down early in the season and the knee didn't hold up," Ludwig said. "We'd have all the No. 1 reps invested in that young man and the next guy coming in wouldn't be developed and wouldn't be able to carry the load."
A group decision, thus, was made — allowing Johnson another year to heal the knee completely.
"Everyone is one the same page. Everyone's in the same camp," Whittingham said. "It's best for Brian. It's best for the football team. It's a win-win situation."
Even so, Johnson admits it is tough to look at the big picture and Utah's depth at quarterback.
"I'm a competitor. I want to be out there and play," he said. "I feel like I would be the best person to go out there and play for us."
His knee, however, dictated a different course of action. Johnson acknowledged it's less than 100 percent and proved to be the X-factor.
"Maybe it could have been well enough to play. But you've got three great quarterbacks, so why risk it? I've got a long future ahead of me to play football," said the 19-year-old with 10 career starts. "I want to come out here and be 100 percent healthy. If I'm not able to do that, there's no reason to go out there."
Johnson respects the way Whittingham was up front and honest about the entire situation. The plan all along was to redshirt Johnson if he wasn't completely healthy.
"He was a little bit emotional about it, and I can definitely see why. He's a very competitive guy. I'd be the same way," said Ratliff, who backed up Johnson last season. "It's hard to just give up something that you think you deserve and you've earned. He has two more years after this, and he's going to be great."
Ratliff praised Johnson for working hard to come back and doing well in camp, despite occasional trouble with his knee.
"I think it's smart of him to redshirt. It'll make his career better and it'll make it longer," Ratliff said. "It gives me and Tommy a shot to battle it out for the starting spot, but he's going to be great the next two years."
With the three-man race reduced to a pair, Ratliff and Grady will see an increase in reps. As soon as one of them pulls away in practice, Ludwig said a decision on a starter will be made.
Besides the candidates, the entire offense is eager for an announcement.
"You don't want to leave that thing hanging," Ludwig said. "You don't want to leave it in limbo. The guys want to know who is taking us into battle."

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com

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