Utes face coaching uncertainty

johnson-cropped Colby Patterson

Brian Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah history, who led the team to a Sugar Bowl victory in 2009 and then spent the past four seasons on Kyle Whittingham’s coaching staff, is leaving the Utes’ football program.

According to Pete Roussel of coachingsearch.com, Johnson has agreed to join the coaching staff at Mississippi State in a role that has yet to be fully identified. The Bulldogs are coached by Dan Mullen, who recruited Johnson to Utah while the quarterbacks coach under Urban Meyer during the 2003-2004 season.

Johnson’s departure comes after an up-and-down start to his coaching career that most recently saw him be demoted from co-offensive coordinator to quarterbacks coach in December. As a 23-year-old, he was hired as the Utes’ quarterbacks coach and spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons in that role.
Having impressed Whittingham, Johnson was elevated to offensive coordinator prior to the 2012 campaign and became the youngest offensive coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 24.

The Utah offense struggled in 2012, though, and Hall of Fame coach Dennis Erickson was hired to lead the group in 2013 with Johnson as his co-offensive coordinator. The Utes struggled once again last season, and former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was hired as offensive coordinator. This set off a series of demotions, as Erickson became the running backs coach and Johnson was relegated to quarterbacks coach.

Johnson, who will turn 27 on Sunday, has been a part of the Utah football program for the better part of 10 years. The Baytown, Texas native came to Salt Lake City as a 17-year-old freshman in 2004 after graduating from high school early. He saw action in 10 games his first season, the year the Utes busted the BCS for the first time and won the Fiesta Bowl.

Johnson was Utah’s starting signal caller in 2005, 2007 and 2008, as he redshirted the 2006 campaign to recover from injury. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s in mass communication, Johnson was away from the program during the 2009 season while attempting to play professionally. When that didn’t work out, he returned to the Utes prior to the 2010 season to serve as the quarterbacks coach.

No information has been officially released concerning how Whittingham will fill the vacancy left by Johnson, who will be looking to get his coaching career back on track at Mississippi State. Reports surfaced over the weekend that BYU wide receivers coach Guy Holliday was a frontrunner to join Utah’s staff, but nothing has come of that.

In addition to the open spot made available by Johnson’s departure, it is still unknown who will coach the Utes’
special teams unit during the 2014 campaign. At a press conference in January introducing Christensen as Utah’s new offensive coordinator, Whittingham indicated that he may assume those duties.

The Utes, who just signed a recruiting class last week that was ranked 10th in the Pac-12 by ESPN and 11th in the conference by Rivals.com, will open spring ball on March 18. Utah faces many questions as it prepares for the 2014 season after it missed the postseason for the second consecutive year in 2013.

Most notably, it is unclear who will be the Utes’ starter at quarterback. When sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson was sidelined in late November after an injury to an intracranial artery was discovered, doctors indicated it would be at least three months before they knew whether or not the San Clemente, Calif. native could resume his playing career or not.

Neither Johnson nor Whittingham were available for comment.

r.mcdonald@chronicle.utah.edu