BRIAN JOHNSON'S BEST 25TH BIRTHDAY PRESENT CAME TWO weeks early when, on Feb. 2, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham named him offensive coordinator, the youngest in college football. Remarked one fan on Utes fan blog Block U, "Most of me is excited about [the] hire. . . . it's daring and I like daring. But part of me is scared s---less."
It's the excitement, though, that seems to win out. As the winningest field general in the program's history (26 victories in 2005, '07 and '08), Johnson, who will retain the quarterbacks-coaching responsibilities he's had for two years, is already a Utah legend and a man whom Whittingham calls "mature beyond his years."
"When I first got hired [in '10], Coach said to always trust myself and think like a coordinator or a head coach," says Johnson. "He's the guy I've learned from my entire adult life."
Johnson inherits most of the key skill players from a team that was one win away from playing for the Pac-12 title last season. The Utes will continue to develop the running game around 2011 one-man show John White. Meanwhile, the return of a healthy Jordan Wynn under center gives Johnson more reliable passing options than Utah had last season.
But the new guy must also replace all-conference tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. Whittingham says the positions won't be set until well into fall camp, and it could be untested junior Percey Taumoelau and freshman Daniel Nielson who are given the job of protecting the injury-prone Wynn from edge rushers.
Fewer questions linger over the defense, particularly the line, whose three returnees include senior Star Lotulelei, a projected top five NFL draft pick. Starting linebackers Trevor Reilly, a junior, and V.J. Fehoko, a sophomore, showed promise in the spring, and coordinator Kalani Sitake has said he's pleased with the flexibility his squad has shown.
With the profile of Utes football on the rise (last February the university reported that the number of out-of-state fans in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium had doubled in 2011 compared with the average from '04 through '10), Johnson's audience this season could be his most massive yet—and it will keep a close eye on him.
COACH Kyle Whittingham (8th year) 66--25 (4--5 in Pac-12)