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Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Tommy Grady unloads a pass at McCarthey Practice Fields.

Brian Johnson isn't a bionic man. Utah's starting quarterback didn't have any $6-million components added to his surgically repaired knee — an injury that sidelined him for the last two games of 2005 and all of 2006.

Johnson, however, is bigger, stronger and faster than he used to be.

The junior, added head coach Kyle Whittingham, is a more mature version of his former self — complete with the perspective of seeing things through a coach's eyes during last season's medical redshirt.

The factors, coupled with Johnson's continual association with former teammate and top NFL Draft pick Alex Smith, have combined to keep Johnson's career on an incline. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder from Baytown, Texas, is getting better with time.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that," said Whittingham, who made it clear that Johnson is back in his role as the Utes' starter.

Johnson, who threw for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 games as a sophomore, nearly won the position back last year.

"He was absolutely playing the best of all the quarterbacks," said Whittingham, who noted that the decision to ultimately have Johnson sit out was not performance-driven. It was strictly medical. "Brian is a very intelligent person. He sees the big picture, and he understood what was best for him and the football team."

The extra time to heal proved beneficial. Johnson no longer wears a protective brace on his knee.

"I'm a lot more confident than I was last year," he said after Utah's camp opener on Saturday.

And that's not all.

"We're excited to have Brian Johnson back. He's a better player today than he was a year ago at this time when he was battling for the QB position," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "He's made huge strides from his sophomore year. So we're excited to have him back. His leadership, his experience — we're counting on him a lot."

Johnson, who was elected a captain by his teammates, has received several preseason accolades including All-Mountain West Conference recognition. Expectations are high.

"First of all, we expect him to be a leader. One thing we've got to be careful of is one man does not make or break a football team," Whittingham said. "You can't put too much emphasis on his role and his responsibility. It's a team game, and he's got to have a supporting cast that helps him out.

"The other 10 guys around him have got to play good football as well," he continued. "It's not just Brian Johnson or the Brian Johnson Show. That's something we've got to guard against."

Johnson will direct an offense featuring nine others with starting experience and heralded junior college transfer Matt Asiata in the backfield. Though appreciative of all his teammates, Johnson is especially pleased with Utah's receivers. They've worked together throughout the offseason.

"I don't think there's a deeper receiving corps in this conference with six veteran guys. Each is capable of stepping up and having a huge game for us at any given time," Johnson said. "It's nice to have six guys that you can really depend on and know where they're going to be every play."

Depth also exists at quarterback. As was the case a year ago, Whittingham said the Utes have one of the best quarterback situations in the nation.

"I still feel that way," he said.

Senior Tommy Grady, a transfer from Oklahoma, is ticketed to be the backup for the second consecutive season. Whittingham said Grady played his best football at Utah during spring drills.

Ludwig agrees. He said Grady, who is 6-foot-7, had a super spring and made real solid progress in getting comfortable with the system.

Ludwig, who is also the Utes' quarterbacks coach, acknowledged there's currently a definite separation on the depth chart.

"I feel real good with the one (Johnson) and the two (Grady)," he said. "The three will decide what we're going to do as the season develops."

Top candidates for the No. 3 spot include junior college transfer Chad Manis (6-5, 215) and promising freshman Corbin Louks (6-0, 171). Whittingham, however, said Manis will redshirt if everything goes according to plan.

Former Alta quarterback Kyle Bowen (6-4, 210) is also in the mix. He recently returned from an LDS Church mission and joined the team as a walk-on.

"Bottom line," Whittingham said. "We feel like we're in a good situation with our quarterbacks."

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com