Interview: Mike Johnson, Part 1

Bruin Report Online sat down with UCLA's new offensive coordinator, Mike Johnson, for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about the scheme he wants to run in 2011, quite candidly discusses personnel, and more...

This is the first of the interview's two parts.

BRO: From what I hear, you're looking to do a lot with formations, different packages and personnel groups. Three weeks in, how is that process coming together?

MJ: We're putting together the systems part of the (play)book. We're pretty much done with that now – the formations, the shifts, the motions, all those type things, and building a foundation that we can branch out from. The plays, the plays in the run game, the plays in the pass game, will be what they are. But we're trying to make sure that everybody gets on the same page and organizing the coaches and making sure we're on one terminology system where we're not calling fronts three and four different things and making sure we have a singular language in which we speak from. That's what we're doing right now.

BRO: I guess that all has to be put together before you even take it to the players …

MJ: Exactly. We have to be able to communicate and talk in one language before we ever get to them. We've pretty much done the run game, we've pretty much done the systems part of it, and then we'll get going on Monday on the passing game part of it and get that done. Probably by the end of next week we'll have a base run and pass game ready to go.

BRO: That base, we'll see that out of different looks? We'll see spread, we'll see Pistol.

MJ: See, my whole thing is we want to be able to run an offense from three different spots. (Johnson went to the board on his office wall and diagrammed the three spots – a Pistol set and spread option sets with the back to the left and to the right). The Pistol will be a portion of what we do but not solely everything we do. We're going to run an offense from those three spots, both run and throw. And then also have the quarterback line up in those two spots (a Pistol/spread shotgun and under center).

BRO: So, it'll be a spread look …

MJ: If you take that out there, that's a spread offense. You're running zone reads from those two spots. It will be a combination of spread, it will be a combination of Pistol and it will be a combination of drop back pass. That is the offense that we're going to develop. So, the Pistol to me is a formation, but the run game, when you talk about the run game, the run game in the Pistol that the University of Nevada is known for, they're running the zone read and they're running a zone read option. They have a bluff game and they have a regular zone game. You go to the spread offense that the University of Oregon runs, they have a zone game and they have a bluff game. Those are the two. There's no different offense. But now we have to be able to throw the ball off of it and I can guarantee you this, we will be much better throwing the ball than we were last year. We'll be much better.

BRO: They kept a lot of the drop back pass offense from the previous year when they put in the Pistol formation. In watching tape, did it look like it just didn't time up or what?

MJ: I'm not sure what happened. I'm not sure the reasons for that. But, you change midstream, I'm not sure that the run game and the pass game married each other. But we have time now to sit back and look at the base run game that we're going to put in and then put the passing game together where it fits.

BRO: It's such a curious thing. You look at the Pistol as a formation, Hawaii ran it and was able to throw for almost 400 yards a game, led the nation. Nevada ran it and was close to 300 yards rushing per game …

MJ: And if you put the two together, you can have an explosive offense. And we're going to do that. We have to develop an offense that we gain confidence from, that we as an offense, both players and coaches, believe in, and once you believe in something then you do it that much better and that is the key. That is what we're going to do. When we come out of spring football this year, the one thing that we want to accomplish is gaining the confidence and the belief in what we are doing, therefore we can go into training camp and practice the things that we believe in and then become better at them, and then go into the season ready to roll. That is the deal.

What I'm going to do on the offensive side of the ball is set high standards and high expectations and not deviate from those. You know, I expect us to be good.

BRO: How has that been received by some of the players?

MJ: It's been received well. I think the players here want to be good. I think they want to have something that they can hang their hat on and say, ‘this is what we do,' and believe in it. I think they're eager and I think they're excited and when they see what we're going to do on the field and some of the things we're going to change, I think they'll become confident in that and believe in it a little more.

BRO: Do you get the sense that belief wasn't there or as strong as it needed to be last year?

MJ: I don't know. I don't know what happened before I got here. I don't know what happened with the offense and why things were the way they were. But I don't believe we have 116th in the nation personnel, I don't think we have the type of athlete here that warrants that number. I think we're much better than that. I think if we can do what we do, execute it, detail it, make sure that we teach it properly as coaches, then we can be much better than that.

BRO: Getting back to the formations for a second, when you're under center, I imagine there are run game components in there as well. Is there a fullback in the offense?

MJ: I don't even know if we have a fullback on campus. But the thing, from my background, you can take a second tight end that can do fullback things. You can have a two-back offense with a bigger body tight end to do those types of things. That's not going to be a problem. We can jump in and out of certain personnel groupings and get done what we want to get done.

BRO: Whether the body is there or not, though, the short yardage out of some of those formations, it's kind of nice to have that big body leading through there …

MJ: One thing you'll learn about me is I'm a big personnel group, formation, motion, shift, guy. I believe you jump in and out of certain personnel groups and make defensive teams adjust to what we do. Not just line up in one personnel group and that's all we do, you make them play a number of personnel groupings, make them play a number of formations, motions, shifts, give them one look then get back to another. I mean, those are the things, and all we want to do is get one guy out of place so we can run our core whatever that will be. That is what we're going to do. We're going to be good at something – that's what we're figuring out now. And whatever that is, we'll hang our hat on it and we'll go.

BRO: Obviously, the NFL and college are completely different games, as far as a time commitment goes. There have been situations in the past here where quarterbacks have checked into plays that don't exist in the formations they were lined up in, guys that have lined up incorrectly ... when you're putting that all together, what are the key elements in getting that done?

MJ: Those types of things are going to be unacceptable. One thing we're going to do here and it's going to be from Day One – assignment, alignment and technique. Those are the three things that we must do right on every play. You must know your assignment, or you can't play. You must align properly, or you can't play. And you must execute the proper technique, or you can't play. And, the technique part, that's coaching. We have to coach the techniques of the offense that we put in. But the assignment and alignment are things that we all are going to be accountable for. If you line up in the wrong place because you don't know your assignment, then somebody else has got to play. Those are things that we have to do correctly, because those things happen before you even snap the ball.

BRO: When you look at the quarterbacks you're going to have available for the spring, have they been given any of this yet? Are they in here looking at stuff?

MJ: It's close to getting to that point. But we wanted to make sure we finalized it and there's time where we can get it going here pretty soon. But we wanted to make sure we ironed it out and hashed it out and cleaned up some things before we handed them information.

BRO: What do you think that process is going to be like? You have a true freshman in Brett Hundley. You have a guy who is going to be going back and forth between spring football and baseball in Richard Brehaut. You have a guy coming back from a pretty serious knee injury in Kevin Prince. That doesn't limit what he can do in the classroom, obviously. But can you break down what that process can be like?

MJ: Well, Kevin Prince will be here and he'll do all the mental stuff, but he still won't get the physical reps like you said. Brehaut, he's playing baseball and he's going to be back and forth. But the young kid, he's going to be there every day, so it's a great opportunity for him to get a lot of reps. Coming in here in January and then getting this opportunity is going to increase and speed up his learning curve. He's going to make mistakes early, he's going to do certain things, but if we can come out of the spring with him gaining the confidence and understanding what we're doing, then that gives him the chance to go into training camp and compete for a job.

You coach what's here. Other guys have other issues, but you coach what's here. My whole deal is when you close that (meeting room) door, you don't talk about what you don't have. You coach what you have and you go, and you don't complain about anybody that's not in that room because until someone else gets here, that's what you've got and that's how we look at it. If that guy is a quarterback then you do things to play to his strength. You give him as much as he can handle and then you go from there.

BRO: I don't know if you have much of a feel for Hundley yet, but guys coming from high school, they might not have had to change protections or do blitz checks or anything. But here, it's …

MJ: You have to learn all that. And everybody is different. There are some kids that can play early. Some kids can't. And you see what they can handle. You see how they handle themselves under blitz situations and pressure and some guys can handle it. Some guys are not affected by that. You can do certain things as coaches just to kind of prevent some of the things and situations they get in, but at the end of the day you find out. I don't know anything about him other than what I've seen on tape and you know, the tape was pretty good. It'll be a good opportunity for him, though, to go through it and get a trial run and Brehaut will be going back and forth so he'll be here also.

BRO: Watching that tape, do you get a sense that Hundley is maybe a little more savvy than your typical high school senior might be?

MJ: He looks good on tape in the high school game, but like I said, when you come here and now you've got a whole set of problems and things happen faster, they're quicker, and you have to make protection calls and things like that, I mean, you teach them and then you put them in those adverse situations and you see how they handle themselves. Some guys have poise, other guys they don't. I've seen it at all levels. You've got guys in professional football that can't handle pressure. I have no idea what he is internally. He may be right, from Day One he may be great.

BRO: You have to be really curious, though.

MJ: Well, he's going to get that opportunity to show us. That he will.

BRO: And with Brehaut, he'll practice, he'll be going to the meetings. But he'll also be playing baseball …

MJ: He'll also be playing baseball.

BRO: How much does that take away from what he's going to have to do? Everything is going to be new, pretty much …

MJ: That's something you're going to have to ask Rick (Neuheisel). Like I said, I don't worry about anybody that is not in that room. If we have a meeting and he's playing baseball, then he's going to miss that meeting. It's been OK'd through Rick. Rick allowed him to do that. So I'm going to coach whoever is sitting in that room and move forward. This is something that he wants to do and something he feels is important to him and we're going to give him the opportunity to do it.

BRO: There's really not a lot of room to make up ground. If you're over there going 1 for 5 while everybody else is in a classroom, I mean, you can't really make that up quickly can you?

MJ: Life is all about choices. You know, you have choices, you have decisions and you have consequences. And we all have decisions that we have to make on the choices we're given and then there are consequences. It may not affect him at all. I don't know how much he's going to miss. He may be there every single meeting, every single practice. But I can't say that yet because I don't know. We'll see.

BRO: The other part of your equation is the receivers group. I don't mind saying, you have a big challenge ahead of you.

We will have a good receiving corps. I can tell you that right now. We will have a good receiving corps. The receiving corps, the talent I see on that tape, we will have a good receiving corps. I'm excited about those guys because I think they're grossly underachieving.

BRO: Well, we're on the same page there …

We're going to change the way they see themselves, we're going to change the expectations, we're going to change the standard at which they work. But I think the potential to be very good is there.

BRO: You look at them, you think, ‘They have a lot of athletes, but they have maybe one or two football players.'

MJ: I think we have more than that, I think they just don't know it yet. And that's going to be my job to get them to play at a higher level. I'm excited about it. I think we're going to have a very good receiving corps. I do.

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