Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson prepares to throw a pass during the first day of spring ball Tuesday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

As far as Brian Johnson is concerned, spring ball couldn't start soon enough at the University of Utah.

After taking a medical redshirt last year while recovering from a knee injury suffered late in the 2005 season, the junior quarterback is raring to go.

"I've been waiting. I'm just excited to get out there and get ready to get going," said Johnson, whose aim is to just get better each and every day. "I'm looking forward to it."

Johnson and his teammates held their first spring practice Tuesday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. They did so without a quarterback controversy.

"It's Brian Johnson's to lose," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Yes, he's the starter."

Johnson has reclaimed the role he inherited from top NFL draft pick Alex Smith. As a sophomore, Johnson led the Mountain West Conference in pass efficiency and was fourth in the nation in total offense.

Then came the injury, in the waning moments of a narrow loss to New Mexico on Nov. 12, 2005. It opened the door for backup Brett Ratliff, who went on to lead the Utes to victories over BYU and Georgia Tech.

Though healthy enough to compete again last fall, Johnson ultimately opted to take a medical redshirt and complete the healing process on his knee.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that it was an easy decision," Johnson said. "It was one of the toughest decisions I probably had to make in my life."

Turned out to be a pretty good one. Johnson wore a brace all season and didn't feel 100 percent until the BYU week and the Armed Forces Bowl practices that followed.

"It was difficult to watch at times. I wanted to play," Johnson said. "But I realized that my health was the biggest issue. And if I wasn't completely healthy, there's no sense in going out there and injuring myself worse."

As a result, Johnson enters spring camp completely mended. Even the knee brace is gone.

"It's a thing of the past now. It's not a factor," Johnson said. "I'm not even concerned about my knee anymore."

The talented Texan is too busy. Johnson is determined to learn something new about the offense each day. Complete mastery of it, he believes, will come with reps and getting re-familiar with Utah's first unit.

"I'm just looking forward to coming out as a more mature quarterback who understands the game more and is more of a leader on this team," Johnson explained. "I'm looking forward to having two great years here."

It's an approach Whittingham appreciates.

"He's got the right attitude," he said. "He's 100 percent healthy. The knee is showing no signs of any residual effects. There's been no swelling or any of that type of thing. We're excited to get him back on the field."

Johnson wasn't exactly idle last season. He quarterbacked the scout team and was able to see things from a coaching perspective.

"He was giving the defense fits," Whittingham said. "He played his role exceptionally well last year as a scout team quarterback. He did a nice job leading that scout team."

It came as no surprise, though.

Despite his mending knee, Johnson nearly reclaimed his starting spot last fall.

"It was very difficult. He was having a fantastic camp, but you've got to look long term — particularly in his best interest," Whittingham said. "In hindsight, it was absolutely the right move.

"But it was tough. There was nothing easy about it for him and for us," he continued. "Hopefully it's going to turn out to be a big positive for him."

Johnson acknowledges there were times during his recovery where he felt down. The limited snaps in practice and lack of game action were difficult to handle.

Johnson, however, has no regrets about getting completely healthy again — even though he felt he earned the starting job in camp last fall.

"I made that decision and I truly believe it was the right decision to make," said Johnson, who is looking ahead to the coming season.

The Utes return 10 players with starting experience on offense.

"We really have a veteran group. But by no means does that mean that we have all the answers," Johnson said. "We still have to work and come out with an extremely hard work ethic, just come out every day and get better heading into summer conditioning."

Utah opens the season Aug. 30 at Oregon State. It's part of a challenging slate featuring UCLA and Louisville, as well as conference road games at projected contenders TCU and BYU.

"I'm really excited about the schedule. We have a chance to make some noise with this schedule," Johnson said. "So we just have to make the most of the opportunity. The guys have to be ready to play and give it everything we have."

Johnson will continue to do his part, he added, by "just getting back out and doing his thing."


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com