Utah quarterback Brian Johnson has evolved into a hybrid. The fifth-year senior is determined to blend his performance in 2005 with the maturity level he showed last season.
Injuries have forced Johnson to change his game over the years. He's had to find different ways to help the Utes win.
The challenges, which have included knee and shoulder injuries, have kept Johnson from totally fulfilling the promise he showed as Alex Smith's understudy on Utah's Fiesta Bowl championship team.
Things started off well.
In his first season as the starter, Johnson produced some big numbers. He led the Mountain West Conference in total offense (ranking fourth in the nation with 337 yards per game) and pass efficiency.
The success, however, was interrupted by a season-ending knee injury in the 10th game of the 2005 campaign.
Johnson spent the next season as a redshirt while recovering from the surgery that followed.
In 2007, he reclaimed his role as the starter. And as luck would have it, Johnson quickly suffered another injury a shoulder separation in the opening game at Oregon State.
It never really healed.
Though the injury usually requires 4-6 weeks of recovery time, Johnson came back in three and the shoulder got hit each game. Despite the pain, the junior wound up leading the Utes to victories in eight of the nine games he started and finished. Johnson capped things off by winning offensive MVP honors in the Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy.
"We've had challenges and we've dealt with them. It's just a matter of coming out, going to work everyday and trying to get better realizing that you're not the only one who has challenges to deal with," Johnson said. "Things could have been a lot worse. You've got to play with the hand that was dealt and make the most of it."
Though Johnson's individual statistics took a drastic drop his passing yardage fell from 2,892 yards in 2005 to 1,847 in 2007 and his rushing yardage went from 478 to 150 Utah's team success rose.
With Johnson as the starting quarterback, the Utes were 8-2 last season and 5-5 in 2005.
Watching the 2006 season from the sidelines proved beneficial. Johnson insists he learned a lot that year. It altered his approach to the game. Johnson realized he didn't have to try and take over every game. He considered it a sign of maturity and leadership.
"Things don't always happen perfectly," Johnson said. "But you find a way to make do with what you have and make the most of each moment."
And that's exactly what Johnson is doing.
When it became apparent that his ailing throwing shoulder wasn't getting better on its own, he opted to have it scoped. Scar tissue was removed. Johnson is now pain-free and working hard to regain his arm strength. He throws to his receivers a couple of times each week and by estimates the arm is 90 percent to 95 percent back to normal.
"I think it was a huge help for me to go ahead and get that surgery done, let them clean out my shoulder," said Johnson, who noted that the rest and recovery has it feeling great.
Injuries are no longer on his mind.
"My goal this year is complete focus week in and week out, giving everything I have and sacrificing everything I have in order to win football games and a Mountain West Conference championship," Johnson said. "My whole approach this season is having no regrets and making this season the best of my life, making the most of it.
"We have a special opportunity here. I'm excited about the group of guys that we have," Johnson said. "It's time for us to put everything together and play with consistency for 13 weeks and have a ball while we're doing it."
The key, he added, is having a killer instinct every week.
Johnson speaks from experience. It's a mindset that helped him overcome the adversity associated with his injuries.
"It's human nature to question why certain things happen, but you never really have an answer for it. We just have to keep moving forward and do the best we can," said Johnson, who vows it's not in his nature to ever give up. "No. Never. I was born with the mentality to finish and keep fighting. Good things will eventually happen."
And with his final season at Utah approaching, the time is now.
"I want to make my career come full circle," Johnson said. "When I came in we won a Mountain West Conference championship and I want to leave winning one. If we're able to do that, that would be a great accomplishment."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham agrees the timing is right.
"It's a big year for Brian Johnson, and it's a big year for the Utes. The championship had eluded us for the last three seasons and that's really our first and foremost goal is to try to get that back," Whittingham said. "As a fifth-year senior, he's a seasoned vet. He's been there and done that. He knows the drill and we're excited to have him at the helm."
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig says Johnson has the attitude like a lot of fifth-year seniors.
"There's a great sense of urgency," he said. "He wants to finish his career on a high note and he's doing everything he can to put himself in position to do that."
Johnson, he explained, is a special guy who is due to have a special year.
Ludwig pointed out that Johnson continues to get better and made necessary improvements this spring.
"He loves football and he wants to be a great player," Ludwig said. "That's what keeps him motivated."
Already wise beyond his years, having arrived at Utah when he was 17, Johnson's intelligence is another weapon in his arsenal. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in May and is working towards another one.
"I don't know if you can focus any more than he has. He's a very focused, determined individual. He's a great preparer. His preparation is second to none as far as film study and paying attention to detail," Whittingham said. "As frustrating as last year was for him individually, the true measure of a quarterback is win-loss record."
And Utah's 8-1 finish last season, he explained, is a tribute to Johnson.
"He's our team leader," Whittingham said. "He's a very resilient kid."
It's just another reason why there's no quarterback controversy on the hill. It's Johnson's job.
"He's our guy," Ludwig said.
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