Ex-QB Brian Johnson still directing Utes offense
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By LYNN DeBRUIN
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) As a kid, Brian Johnson was so inquisitive he read the warning label inside his football helmet and nearly quit the game.
Nearly 20 years later that thirst for knowledge is serving him well instead as he embarks on his first season as Utah's offensive coordinator - according to the Utes, the youngest at the FBS level.
Johnson is best known for engineering Utah's 31-17 upset over heavily favored Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, calling plays in a no-huddle offense that helped Utah dart out to a 21-0 lead.
Now at 25, the winningest quarterback in Utah history is in charge in a different way.
Never mind that a few of Utah's players were born the same year, or that the man he replaced - 66-year-old Norm Chow - is old enough to be his grandfather.
"He might be young in age but not in knowledge," said Utes senior wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, who was quarterback for the scout team during Johnson's senior season.
Family members and colleagues say Johnson has always been mature beyond his age.
He committed to Utah at 16, and graduated high school at 17.
He went on to play in 10 games as a true freshman for the Utes, backing up Heisman Trophy finalist Alex Smith during Utah's 12-0 Fiesta Bowl championship season.
"He's always been the youngest," said Johnson's high school coach, Dick Olin, now Stephen F. Austin's offensive coordinator. "He was the youngest senior quarterback we ever had, the youngest backup Utah had. The `youngest' and `Brian Johnson' go hand in hand."
Olin said Johnson, Utah's fifth offensive coordinator since 2008, will do just fine in his expanded role because of his intelligence, leadership and charismatic-yet-calm demeanor.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said he sensed Johnson had a great feel for calling games in the Sugar Bowl victory. He cited the precision with which Johnson executed but also the feel he had for which plays to dial up.
"He was lights out," Whittingham said. "Those first three drives of the first quarter were as good as you'll see in any football game."
When Whittingham had a chance to hire Johnson as quarterbacks coach at age 22, he didn't hesitate.
Of course that presented one small problem for Johnson.
"When I was recruiting, I couldn't rent a car," he said. "Now, since my 25th birthday (in February), they don't hassle me about renting anymore."
Other than that, his transition from the field to sidelines has been seamless, something that must continue if Utah is to improve upon its 8-5 finish in 2011 - its first season in the expanded Pac-12 Conference.
Under Johnson, Christopher said Utah is opening up the offense a little more with spread sets as opposed to the pro-style formations used a year ago.
Yet Olin said Johnson won't feel compelled to put his stamp on the offense.
"He doesn't have an ego," Olin said. "He'll do what he must to help them win."
Despite his youth, Johnson said he isn't feeling the pressure.
"I've never been one to let that pressure get to me," said Johnson, who also is getting married to his college sweetheart this summer. "I'm more excited than anything else."
That's a stark contrast to his first taste at quarterback, when he was sacked in a Pop Warner game, and told his mother, "I'm never playing football again. They almost paralyzed me."
Turns out the kid who was always asking "why" had read the warning inside the helmet.
Johnson regrouped quickly and was at it the next play, and has matured at every level since.
About unnerved as he gets was standing alone late at night outside the Superdome, Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in hand, after the team buses left without him following Utah's big win.
"We thought we had everybody," Whittingham recalled, noting some players had gone off with their parents rather than back to the team hotel. "But he was in a remote corner, doing some interview, and we didn't know."
Johnson, who called Whittingham on his cellphone to arrange a ride, laughs about it now.
"He's a guy who's won over the hearts of Ute nation," Whittingham said.
Johnson already is giving back. When his salary jumped from $120,000 to $250,000 in his new role, he pledged $50,000 to the athletic director's fundraising campaign.
He declined to discuss the pledge other than to say, "I'm really appreciative of being able to grow up here and play for a great, great program. It's something I'm really passionate about."
Updated May 25, 2012