Brian Johnson as Utah's offensive coordinator is as bold of a move as Kyle Whittingham has ever made at Utah. But will it work?
The hiring of Brian Johnson certainly sent shock waves through the world of college football today. It's not often a Pac-12 program hires a guy as offensive coordinator who still could be of playing age.
It just doesn't happen. In fact, Brian Johnson now becomes the youngest coordinator in all of college football - taking the crown from East Carolina's Lincoln Riley, who's currently 28.
So, as we try to wrap our brains around the idea of a 25 year old, two-year 'veteran' now leading the offense, we're left with a lot of questions and concerns.
In one year's time, the program went from having the most experienced and successful offensive coordinator in arguably college football history, to potentially the least experienced and clearly youngest coordinator of the last decade.
That's quite the contrast.
Brian Johnson hardly brings the cachet Norm Chow brought to the program in 2011, but then again, he also brings youth and the possibility of new ideas to help spark an offense that, while forced to battle through injuries last year, was down right awful.
What I do know is that this unconventional hire has its benefits - but it also has some concerning negatives and the hire will inevitably sink or swim based just on that.
I want to first start off by looking at the positives of this hire because, even if I have my doubts, I believe there are many and I hope they bear out.
For starters, Brian Johnson is, along with Alex Smith, probably the most successful Ute in program history. He led the team to its greatest season ever, owns the most wins of any quarterback to ever don a Utah uniform and created a kind of mythical image with his late-game heroics during the 2008 season. In addition, he orchestrated the greatest win in program history - defeating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of Utah players, Brian Johnson would unquestionably adorn it.
He is the quintessential Utah Man - a school hero and now potentially the heir apparent to Kyle Whittingham's throne.
That's exciting. I don't think you'll find one fan who dislikes Brian Johnson. He's universally beloved for his grit, his smarts and his ability to deliver results.
To have him now lead Utah's offense is kind of like the perfect ending to the perfect script.
Of course, being the lovable assistant isn't the only good thing about this hire. Johnson is an insider with an outsider image. He's been in Utah essentially since 2004, has assimilated well to the culture, but he's not from Utah. He was born and raised in Texas, he's not LDS and, whether it should be relevant or not, he's African-American.
That latter point is pretty hefty because Utah, even if unjustly, still has a stigma attached to it and I think Johnson very well could be the perfect ambassador to not only our program, but our state in selling the outside world the idea that it ain't that bad here in the Land of Zion.
To be sure, Utah has had an African-American coordinator in the past (Fred Graves, '95-'97), but Brian Johnson is different. He's not only young, but, like I said earlier, he played here - he knows the quirks of Utah's lifestyle and he can sell that to recruits. He has been selling that to recruits.
Youth, as much as it might seem like a disadvantage, also could be a positive because he's more familiar with today's generation. Kyle Whittingham is not young. He's in his 50s. When he was born, Dwight Eisenhower was president. And I don't want to sound like an ageist, but recruiting, being able to connect with potential future players, is so big now that having a 25 year old out there who is now the offensive coordinator, an elite coach in an elite conference, could be huge for the program.
Johnson also could potentially bring a new perspective to the booth. Assistant coaches, especially those who've been around for years, typically get set in their ways. That isn't always bad and there is no doubt Chow's experience and calming hand helped the Utes through their struggles last season, but college football is all about change. If you're not evolving and adapting, you're failing. Johnson, as a quarterback who ran the spread option, which has transformed college football the past ten or so years, might have new ideas on how to improve this offense.
Add the fact he's learned under two of the greatest offensive minds in college football history (Urban Meyer and Norm Chow) and his experience helping Andy Ludwig run the offense when he sat out the 2006 season and you've got the makeup of a great coordinator.
Another thing I like about this hire is that it potentially puts into place Johnson taking over the program when Whittingham inevitably leaves. It might not happen, and who knows, maybe Johnson will take another gig at another program by that time, but he should at least add some additional consistency at a position that has been less than consistent. With him being a graduate of Utah and someone who obviously enjoys living here, with the addition of his youth, it's more probable he's here in five years than someone from the outside.
One of the biggest doubts we all had about Norm Chow was whether he would be here long enough to really have a positive impact. In the end, his impact was good, but maybe not as significant as it could have been because he was here so briefly. I'm sure the fact Chow only coached a season before taking off to Hawaii played a role in Whittingham's choice to promote Johnson. He's not likely to leave in a year or even two.
That's important because it's something the Utes have lacked. Going back to the 2008 season, Utah has had four offensive coordinators: Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Aaron Roderick and Norm Chow. That's a high amount of turnover and it'll be nice to get some stability back - at least in theory.
I say in theory because I do have some concerns and it's entirely tied to Johnson's inexperience. The biggest reason the Utes have gone through as many offensive coordinators as they have over the last few seasons is because the promotion of a coach didn't pan out. In 2009, Whittingham elevated Schramm to the offensive coordinator duties and he clearly wasn't up to the job. So, midway through the season, Roderick replaced him and called plays until he too was demoted because, well, it appeared he wasn't up to the job, either.
What will make Johnson any different? There was no grace period for either Roderick or Schramm. Whittingham didn't allow them to fight through their growing pains and quickly moved to shake things up when the offense stagnated, possibly due to those growing pains.
If Johnson struggles this upcoming season and the offense is, again, abysmal, are we searching for a new coordinator again in a year? Or is Whittingham ready to bite the bullet and let Johnson grow into the role?
What if he doesn't? What if Johnson, as great of a quarterback as he was, just isn't cut out to coach? It's not as if we have enough evidence to give us an indication - especially at the coordinator level.
With all the offensive talent coming back next year, with expectations higher than they were last year, are we willing to have a throwaway season to test drive Johnson?
Should we now lower, maybe even considerably, our expectations for 2012?
Those are some big questions and the answers will ultimately dictate whether this hire works or not.
Most of me is excited about this Johnson hire. I think it's daring and I like daring. But I'm not going to lie, part of me is scared $#!%less.
But that makes this move all the more intriguing, don't you think?