At one time the youngest offensive coordinator in the game's top division, Johnson still has the spark of that 24-year-old. He's just added a few more seasons of experience handling quarterbacks and offenses at Utah. Now a little more seasoned and lots wiser, Johnson has also taken the career-step of leaving his alma mater for the task of preparing Mississippi State's triggermen. And scheming against SEC defenses. And going head to head with some of the football world's fiercest recruiters. And…you get the idea.
But this is why a young coach comes South to work. And why Johnson in particular is Mullen's pick for the 2014 Bulldog staff. Johnson met with beat writers Thursday for the following Q&A session.
What do you think of your quarterbacks at first impression?
"A great group of young men. I'm excited for the opportunity to get a chance to work with them. Obviously Dak, Damian, and Nick; all three of them are extremely hard workers. From a standpoint of mental attributes I think they're exactly what you want in our program. And I think they're going to provide great leadership and great athleticism at the position. I'm looking forward for a chance to getting them on the field and working with them in some detail." "For me right now a lot of it has been just getting to know them personally. I think the football part of it, obviously that takes care of itself. We spend plenty of time talking football. But I think from a personal standpoint getting to know these kids and getting to the point where they know me and we build that relationship and build that trust. So that's been my main focus these first two weeks, is getting a chance to know them on a personal level. Their backgrounds, where they're from, their family. And just getting a chance to meet each other and spend some time making sure that everything is in line."
What have you seen out of Nick Fitzgerald on film?
"The thing that stands out to me about Nick is he's ultra-competitive. In a couple of good workouts that we've had, he's absolutely fearless. He'll go against (Benardrick) McKinney and those guys and he'll race them. And he'll step up to the challenge. He's a guy I'm extremely excited to work with, because I think he has a bright future ahead of him."
Why is it so important to know your players on that personal level?
"Well, because we spend so much time with these guys year-round. I think the relationship that you carry with your position coach is one that lasts a lifetime. When we go into a kid's home and recruit that kid, we essentially become an extension of their family. That's something that has been extremely important to me throughout my coaching career, and even in my playing career. You can see that with Coach Mullen, him recruiting me has had a lasting impact on my life. It's eleven years later and that relationship is still there for us. So I think it's extremely important for the reasons I just stated, the trust you build with you position group. And when those guys are done playing football it's important that you stay in touch with them. It's important that you remain a part of their lives."
Talk about being on the same staff as guys who recruited you?
"Well, it's unique. Obviously I'm extremely grateful to those guys that gave me my first opportunity in college football. And it's nice to kind of have that come full-circle and have that chance to work with Coach Mullen and Coach Gonzales and Coach Hevesy and those guys and be a part of that staff. From a philosophical standpoint the foundation of my offensive philosophy kind of derives from what I learned from those guys early on at Utah. Those principles are things that have stuck with over the last eleven years, and I'm sure they'll continue to be the same 20, 30 years from now. So, just a great opportunity to come and coach in this league and be around a great group of guys each day."
Was that an attractive part, the comfort with them?
"That was huge. I can't say enough about those guys and what I've learned from them throughout the years. Obviously having that relationship, having that rapport with them was something that was extremely inviting and enticing. The success that they've had in this program, the job that Coach Mullen has done over the last five years has been outstanding. And I just wanted to be a part of that and I felt it was great opportunity for me to make a move."
How will your perspective as a player for Coach Mullen help now?
"Yes, I've been around him coaching before. So I know exactly how he is, what he expects, and what the expectation is for quarterback play. And it's probably identical to what I expect out of my group as well. So it's a great opportunity and an experience for me to be around a brilliant offensive mind like Coach Mullen, and get a chance to continue to grow and learn and develop as I kind of carry out my coaching journey as well."
What are your thoughts on Dak and Damian after getting to know them?
"I'll start with Dak. I don't think you can ask for a better young man. When you see him you can tell, he's a quarterback. He carries himself with a certain demeanor that draws people to him. Very charismatic, very good with people, he's a great leader, extremely hard worker. And obviously a talented player. He has some special abilities, some special tools. I'm excited to get a chance to work with him and try to help continue to refine and develop those tools, and get him to reach his maximum potential."
"Damian, Coach Mullen has told me a lot about Damian. He said he reminded himself when he recruited me when he recruited Damian. Getting to know Damian, he's an absolute sponge. He picks up information and he processes information well. He handled himself well being a young kid and having to step into some tough situations, he played well and handled himself like a veteran. So it's good to have him in the program. And I'm excited to get the chance to work with those guys."
Where will your recruiting area be?
"I'll be a little bit in Mississippi, down on the Coast, to Mobile as well. And a little bit of Louisiana and a little bit of Texas. Obviously I'm from Texas so I have some ties to that area."
How much has Coach Mullen changed in eleven years?
"From a day-to-day perspective, not much. Because obviously I wasn't with him at Florida and the first four years years. But his personality and stuff is still the same as I remember when I was 16 years old. He's extremely detailed, high energy, very personable, relatable, you can talk to him. And a really, really intelligent guy. I think that kind of shines when you have a conversation with him, you understand how smart he is. And I think it carries over."
How do you like to organize your meeting room, a lot of talk or in control?
"Well, I think there's always room for discussion. And I think that's a huge part of developing a quarterback. My whole deal when you talk about developing quarterbacks is getting them to understand why we do the certain things that we do. And in order for them to do that they have to be mentally inquisitive. They have to ask questions, they have to be engaged. They have to understand what we do and how we do it before they understand why we do it. Getting to that point and having them have that maturity level is something that is extremely important in their progress and development as a quarterback."
You're stepping into an offense with many returning parts?
"Obviously eight returning starters so there are guys that have played in this league. And this league is tough, I mean especially this Division. The SEC West is no joke. Having those guys have that experience of being in the fourth quarter of a tight game with Auburn, being in the game with Alabama and LSU and those teams. I think naturally as you get older you can draw back form those experiences previous years in your college career and learn from those and use them to your advantage when you get that next opportunity."
"Obviously I haven't been on the field with those guys year. But I'm looking forward to it and I think it will be a good deal once we get it rolling."
Dak will have high expectations this year, you've been in those shoes too, how do you help him deal with this?
"I think the biggest thing is to go out there and concentrate and control what you can control. Obviously there's a lot of external expectations. But I can tell you that no one is harder on himself thank Dak is, about what he wants to get done and what he wants to get accomplished. He already holds himself to an extremely high standard. So it's just a matter of him going out there each and every day focused and doing the necessary things it takes to get better and to reach his maximum potential."
You yourself had a big moment against a SEC team, what is the impression of defenses in this league?
"I've seen a SEC defense first hand obviously in my playing career. My last game was against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It's a very, very talented league, and a very well-coached league. Those two things are what stand out when you look at the rest of college football. Guys are super-talented and they're coached extremely well. That makes it hard on offenses. And just the overall evolution of defense the last six, seven years, those guys are getting more and more complicated in what they do and making it more difficult for offenses. So I'm excited for the challenge, excited for the opportunity. But looking forward to it as well."
Having been recruited by and played for some of these coaches, what was your first meeting with them as a peer like?
"I didn't really think much of it. I've been blessed and fortunate enough to be around some great offensive minds throughout my career, both as a player and a coach. And I've known those guys for a really long time and I think they've known me in the profession for a while as well. So it wasn't as weird as some people might think. It was kind of get in there and let's get to work, so it wasn't weird at all."
"It was very seamless transition in my opinion, just for the simple fact that the majority of my college career those guys had already moved on to Florida. So by the time I was a junior and senior they were at a different staff and different program. So it had been some time removed from when they had been in the room actually coaching me. Now obviously I'd call Dan and talk to him when I was a player, and my first couple of years as a coach and keeping constant contact. But that dynamic had changed pretty early on in my career."
What did Billy (Gonzales) and John (Hevesy) say to you when they first talked to you after you were hired? (laughing)
"Well, they didn't really say much. They were excited that I was coming aboard with them. I don't think it was a strange moment at all. it was as if anybody else was joining the staff and they were excited to get to work. Obviously John Is going to throw a couple of jokes in there and stuff, that's just his personality. So I'm used to that already! But it was a seamless transition."
Was it difficult to leave your alma mater?
"Yeah, it was a very, very difficult decision. Utah is the only place I've known my entire college career, whether it was coaching or playing. And I'd been there ten years. It's a great community, a great staff. And the hardest part was the relationships that you build over ten years. That was hard to leave."
"But I think all good things obviously must come to an end. And it was a good time for me professionally to get a chance to work with Coach Mullen and Coach Gonzales and Coach Hevesy and those guys and continue to develop in my career. So it was a hard decision but no doubt about it, it was the right decision."
Was part of the decision wanting to see somewhere else and what it is like?
"Yeah, absolutely. I think change is sometimes good for everybody. And often times people can get stuck in their rhythm of doing things and it can hinder development. We all do it in our daily lives, you get stuck into a routine over and over and over again and it starts to become comfortable. I think one of the most important things we can do in our profession is continue to grow, develop, always try to find a better way to do things, not get complacent. And always be searching for a better way to do something, and going out and finding that. So I thought that gave me an opportunity here and it was a great opportunity for my development as a coach and I'm excited to make the move."
You went to college when spread offenses were taking over. A decade later it is still dominant, what have you seen change?
"The biggest thing I've seen is how defenses play it. The offensive concepts have stayed the same over the last 13 or 14 years, back since Bowling Green days and Northwestern and those guys were running the spread in the early 2000s. The way defenses play it is really what has changed. Back when they first started doing it, you'd get a base defense; four down and cover-two and guys stood still and didn't move. That's how people would just shred you up and down the field."
"So the defenses have kind of caught up. And that's now the cycle of football always has been. Somebody innovates something on offense, defenses catch up; then they change, then the defenses catch up again. It's been that everlasting cycle. For me the biggest thing I've seen over the last couple of years is how defenses attack the spread by being more multiple in their fronts, more multiple in their coverages, having more combination coverages and playing more brackets to things."
You were the youngest coordinator in the country at 24, do you still see yourself as a young guy in the business?
"Yeah! I mean, there's guys in this profession the age of my grandparents! So by no means do you ever think you've arrived in this profession. So I'm constantly trying to challenge myself to grow and develop."
"But looking back on it, its already been five years and it seems like it's just flown by. So the years start to run together and goes by extremely fast."
"I think the biggest thing is just sometimes taking a step back and getting a chance to soak it all in. But our profession moves at such a pace that isn't always the case. You sit back and look at it and say wow, I've been coaching already five years, where did the time go? It's crazy."
What are some things that surprise you about Dak's play last year?
"He's a competitor, ultimate competitor. I remember watching the Egg Bowl last year, that in itself was something. I'd never seen anything like that before. It was impressive. Watching it from TV I'm sure didn't do it justice, what it was like in that actual moment for it to go down like that."
"I've watched him on tape and he has the tools to be special. Our job is just to get the most out of him."
What does he need to do to reach those expectations?
"The biggest thing is having the right frame of mind. Making sure that your focus is spot–on each and every single day. You have to understand the magnitude of it, you have to understand the importance and what it takes. The sacrifices that it takes to perform at a high level each and every week. And it's not an easy thing to do. "
"I think no one really understands the demands that are put on these kids with school and academics, and having a social life and random people hitting them up on social media. The times have changed. So now it could be hard to just sit there and say I'm just concentrating on school and football when it's just so much in our world that goes on each and every day, that they're obviously not numb too. So the challenge is making sure you have your mind right every day and staying mentally enaged."
Will you be in the press box on game day?
"We have not talked about that yet, so I'm not sure. We've focused on spring ball and trying to get everything organized from there."
Physically what impresses you about Dak?
"The kid is as strong as an ox. I mean you look at his build, it's ridiculous. He looks like an action figure. I mean it's one of those type dudes. You look at his height, weight, speed, it's very, very impressive."