By George Schroeder
Special for USA TODAY
A couple of hours after the biggest win in University of Utah football history, Brian Johnson found himself loitering on Poydras Street outside the Superdome, holding the trophy he'd just earned as the Sugar Bowl's most outstanding player.
A stranger approached, and asked, "Hey, weren't you the quarterback?"
Not quite four years later, Utah's new offensive coordinator knows many are wondering the same thing.
Utah opens the season Thursday night against Northern Colorado with the nation's youngest coordinator. Yes, Johnson is the same guy who led the Utes to a 31-17 win against Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. At 25, he is barely older than the players he'll call plays for. (He's the same age, in fact, as senior fullback Max Moala.)
"It's obviously a very unique story," he says. "I get that dynamic."
Head coach Kyle Whittingham thinks he has a dynamic young coaching talent. Johnson has always been the youngest, and most precocious. Originally from Baytown, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston, he enrolled at Utah as a 17-year-old, played behind Alex Smith for a season as the Utes went unbeaten and won the Fiesta Bowl, and then took over the starting job and went 26-7, culminating with the victory against Alabama.
"He's been ahead of the curve his whole life," Whittingham says. "This is no different. â€¦ At face value it sounds a little bit odd, a little bit of a risk. I don't see it that way."
When Whittingham acknowledges the unknowns -- "He hasn't called a game yet" â€" he stops himself, and starts again: "He hasn't called a game as a coach."
During the Sugar Bowl, Johnson called plays at the line of scrimmage for most of the first half, leading the Utes to a 21-0 lead on their first three possessions. He threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns as the Utes thrashed the heavily favored Crimson Tide. Afterward, he missed the bus back to the team hotel, which is why he was hanging around outside the Superdome, chatting with incredulous strangers.
His path since is more astounding.
After an NFL tryout and a very brief stint in the UFL, Johnson returned to Salt Lake City. He hung around the program during the 2009 season, just an observer, then was hired as quarterbacks coach. From the first, Whittingham told Johnson to handle himself as though he was a coordinator, the better to create separation from his former teammates.
"One of the most important things for any young coach," Whittingham says. "He's done that flawlessly. He's got the complete respect of all his players."
Whittingham says he had no qualms last winter, after a "national search" to replace Norm Chow, of letting Johnson handle the offense.
"He's got as high of a football IQ as I've ever been around," Whittingham says. "He's got work ethic. He's passionate about what he does, and he's got a vested interest in our program."
Johnson says the only real issue came in recruiting: He was too young to rent a car. (It was still true when he was promoted in February; he turned 25 two weeks later.) Junior quarterback Jordan Wynn, 22, notes he never actually played with Johnson -- his first season was 2009 -- so there's that. Wynn, who has fully recovered from a shoulder injury that cost him most of the 2011 season, says Johnson has a high-energy, upbeat personality and good rapport with the players.
"He's fresh off the game," Wynn says, "so he understands what's going on out there. He's out there running around with us. There's never really a dull moment."
During position meetings, Wynn and the other quarterbacks keep imploring Johnson to wear a visor, because it would "make him look official -- like an offensive coordinator."
Johnson is more likely to stick with the simple ball cap. Possibly, turned backward.
"That's my whole style," he says, laughing.
His offensive style is more aggressive, which fits the Utes' imperative. He has installed a slightly tweaked version of the spread he ran as a player, though with remnants of the more traditional scheme designed by Chow, who left to become Hawaii's head coach and describes Johnson as "energetic. He's studious. Watching him work last year, he has a real good understanding."
Johnson is tasked with improving a unit that ranked 109th in the nationl in total offense (311-yard average) and 74th in scoring (25-point average) in 2011. Those numbers are deceiving. The Utes played for most of the year without Wynn, who suffered a shoulder injury. He's healthy now. Along with senior running back John White, who rushed for a school-record 1,519 yards last season, Johnson has playmakers to work with.
Johnson says his only concern, if it can be called that, is the transition from the sideline to the press box.
"That will be a very, very big change," he says. "For the last eight years I've been on the sidelines at every Utah football game. This is a different deal."