Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah's offense ranks last in the Pac-12 and has struggled running, passing and on third-down conversions under former star QB Brian Johnson.
I've learned to develop an extremely thick skin here over the course of my career — both as a player and as a coach. —Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson

SALT LAKE CITY — Since becoming major college football's youngest coordinator this season, 25-year-old Brian Johnson is getting less shuteye.

"That's probably the biggest difference," he said. "I've gotten a lot less sleep. But that's what's required to make sure you're getting everything done."

Taking care of business is first and foremost on Johnson's mind as Utah's offensive coordinator. Things, however, haven't exactly taken off yet. After five games at the helm, the Utes are ranked last in the Pac-12 in total offense (299.40 ypg) and 11th in both passing (194.40 ypg) and rushing (105 ypg).

"We've got to find ways to execute. We've got to be able to make plays. And obviously there's a ton of room for improvement," Johnson said. "I'm not naive to that fact at all and I'm looking forward to turning it around."

Hard work ends up paying off, he added, and the Utes will get things fixed and turned around.

"We'd obviously like to see a ton more production, but we've got to understand the situation we're in and the only way we can do it is to have sustained drives," Johnson said. "We can't go three-and-out and we've got to convert third downs at a higher rate."

Entering Saturday's game at UCLA, Utah has converted on just 22-of-74 third downs. Increased production in those circumstances is the primary area of emphasis as the Utes work to get on track offensively.

Johnson is determined to do a better job of managing first and second downs in order to create more manageable third-down scenarios. Improving the latter, he explained, requires better execution on down and distance.

"We'll get everything fixed and get it squared away," said Johnson, who noted the Utes have a ton of good guys and coaches who will find ways to battle through the offense's current struggles.

As the offensive coordinator, Johnson knows he's ultimately responsible for finding solutions. It's a role the winningest quarterback in school history (26 victories as a starter) is tackling with the big picture in mind.

"I enjoy coming to work every day. Obviously everything is a lot more fun when you win," said Johnson, who replaced Norm Chow as offensive coordinator after two seasons as Utah's quarterbacks coach. "But the positive thing is we've still got seven opportunities left to get this thing turned around."

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham saw improvement in last week's 38-28 loss to USC. Whittingham credited the offense for being more of what he envisioned and praised Johnson for doing a nice job of trying to maximize personnel.

"I never make an evaluation on coaches until the end of the season. I don't give mid-year grade reports or anything like that, but I think he's progressing," Whittingham said. "We've had some challenges offensively that makes play-calling at times not the easiest thing to do, particularly with the shuffling of the offensive line and some things of that nature. But when you look at it as a whole, I think we're making good progress."

Whittingham noted that Johnson is holding up just fine. Wide receiver Dres Anderson agrees.

"He's just keeping his cool, keeping everything together, just motivating us to do great and execute," Anderson said.

Quarterback Jon Hays also praised Johnson's approach.

"I think he's handled everything well and he's a great teacher," Hays said. "I've learned a lot from him and I look forward to learning more this week."

Johnson, though, is also aware that fan and media criticism exists — same as it did during his playing days.

"Oh yeah, I've been booed out the Oregon State game my senior year, all kinds of stuff. That stuff doesn't bother me at all," Johnson said. "I've learned to develop an extremely thick skin here over the course of my career — both as a player and as a coach. All I can do is just come out and try to do my job."

It paid off as a player. In his final game for the Utes, Johnson earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the 2009 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.

As for his age, Johnson discounts any notion that it may have something to do with his acclimation to being an offensive coordinator.

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"I don't think it's necessarily my age that has anything to do with it. I think it's just being in a new position," he said. "I'm pretty sure there are guys who are 40 years old who are coordinators for the first time that have similar issues. It's just a football issue more so than anything else."

And when it comes to games, Johnson has a constant competitiveness about him.

"That never goes away. It never goes away whether I'm a coach or a player," Johnson said. "I don't care if I'm calling a football game or playing my little cousin in video games, you do things to win and play at a high level. So we'll get that done."

Utes on the air

Utah (2-3, 0-2) at UCLA (4-2, 1-2)

Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT

Rose Bowl

TV: Fox, Ch. 13 Radio: 700 AM

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