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‘Just keep being you’: Meet Brian Johnson, the Eagles QB coach tasked with advancing Jalen Hurts’ development

Johnson and Hurts might have shared roots as dual-threat high school quarterbacks from Texas, but those who've previously worked with Johnson shed light on how he's a fit.

Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson with quarterback Jalen Hurts against the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 21 in Philadelphia.
Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson with quarterback Jalen Hurts against the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 21 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The intense interaction between Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts from Tuesday night was caught on camera for everyone to see.

After Hurts committed his second turnover in consecutive possessions to begin the game, the first-year coach gave the second-year quarterback an earful and then some.

What wasn’t witnessed by many, though, were the ensuing moments and the impact felt across the home sideline. After being barked at by Sirianni, Hurts retreated to the bench, where he was greeted by quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.

Johnson consoled Hurts. He put his arm around his shoulder. He handed him a tablet. He offered words of encouragement.

The assistant coach tasked with advancing Hurts’ development in the most intricate of ways needed to make sure his quarterback knew he was there for him.

“He tells me good, bad, or indifferent — just keep being you,” Hurts said of Johnson. “We get down or a turnover happens, he tells me, ‘Hey, let’s go get some points,’ or ‘Hey, we’re right there.’

“Coach Brian always keeps me prepared. There is never any doubt with that.”

Johnson was hired as quarterbacks coach this past offseason, but his relationship with Hurts goes back quite a few years. If Hurts indeed has a long-term future in Philadelphia, Johnson can play a monumental role in the young quarterback’s career.

At just 34 years old, Johnson is relatively young compared to his peers. He’s the youngest quarterbacks coach in the NFC East, compared to the Giants’ Jerry Schuplinski, 44; Washington’s Ken Zampese, 54; and the Cowboys’ Doug Nussmeier, 51.

However, youth doesn’t necessarily mean inexperienced.

Philadelphia is his first NFL gig, but Johnson spent the past decade as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Utah (2010-’13), Mississippi State (‘14-’16), Houston (’17), and Florida (‘18-’20).

Over the past month, The Inquirer spoke with nearly a dozen of Johnson’s former pupils — a diverse group of quarterbacks who know him best. Through the conversations, we discovered what makes Johnson an ideal fit for Hurts and the Eagles at this stage of both of their careers.

The first line of his player bio on the Utah’s athletics website reads: “Brian Johnson, the winningest quarterback in Utah football history.”

In four collegiate seasons, Johnson threw for 7,853 yards, 57 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. He often preferred to throw the ball, but Johnson — similar to Hurts — possessed dual-threat abilities.

He was a blur in the backfield for opposing defenses. Whenever he felt the pocket collapse in the slightest way, he’d evade defenders like a young boy playing dodgeball for the first time. He also loved executing zone reads and was quite good at dissecting edge rushers. Johnson rushed for 848 yards with 12 rushing touchdowns.

Following his decorated career, which included two-time bowl MVP, four-time Academic All-Mountain West Conference honors, 2008 MWC player of the year, and a 2009 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama to complete a 13-0 season, Utah hired Johnson as quarterbacks coach immediately following his graduation as a communications major.

At age 22, Johnson was tasked with directing a room of quarterbacks who were barely a few years younger than him. He had no previous coaching experience — not even as a graduate assistant, a path taken by so many coaches nowadays to begin their careers.

Utah showed confidence in Johnson when it handed him the job, But why?

“He understood the culture,” said Norm Chow, former Utah offensive coordinator and Hawaii head coach. “Everyone wanted to be around Brian, especially our quarterbacks, because they knew the impact he had on the program. Our guys wanted to soak that all in.”

Since he was so close in age to his players, Johnson was able to relate easily with them off the field. He knew everything about the campus, he was aware of pop culture, and as former Utah quarterbacks Jordan Wynn and Travis Wilson identically phrased: “BJ just got it.”

“He was a legend to us,” said Wilson, Utah’s all-time record holder in total touchdowns. “BJ knew how to attack defenses in ways that only he could explain. He was so good at focusing on the one defender you needed to read. But the crucial factor that he brought was understanding and anticipating how the defense reacts to your read. His next-level awareness made us respect him from the jump.”

Those closest to Johnson refer to him as “BJ.” That’s the nickname he holds throughout the Eagles facility from coaches and players alike.

“There was a friendship being formed while he was also my coach,” Wynn said. “We bonded over the simplest things. But the biggest thing was we bonded over the cerebral part of the game.”

Added former Houston quarterback Kyle Postma: “It’s a lot better having someone closer in age because he knows how the game is being played at the moment — it’s not like he’s giving us tips from 40 years ago. He gives us tips that are pretty current. His experience playing quarterback, it’s a lot easier to trust somebody like that because he’s been through it.”

In Philadelphia, Sirianni has established his five core values across the organization with the first one being “Connect.”

“I think you grow your relationship and the connection grows, the relationship grows — everything grows,” Sirianni said earlier this year.

Johnson’s approach with his players falls in line with Sirianni’s philosophy. No matter what part of his career, Johnson has been able to quickly command the respect of the quarterback room.

“One of the things I learned early on in coaching was to be yourself and genuine,” Johnson recently told The Inquirer in a sit-down interview. “You’re going to get a consistent demeanor from me on a daily basis.”

His energy is infectious. During Eagles practices, the quarterbacks are typically situated on the side of the field furthest from the media. However, even from that far away, it’s not that difficult to notice Johnson’s impact. He’s vocal when necessary, but he utilizes a hands-on approach. Whenever Hurts or Gardner Minshew have a question about a specific drill or play, Johnson will walk them through it multiple times, first in slow motion before going full speed.

For Johnson, it’s about perfection in preparation.

“BJ is a master at keeping everybody engaged,” Postma said. “He adapted to our playstyles, even though we were all very different quarterbacks. He was on our tails, but he always made sure we could trust him. He kept us ready in every moment.”

Johnson considers a handful of his former coaches as key mentors and influencers. He still maintains a relationship with his Robert E. Lee High School coach Dick Olin, in Baytown, Texas, and he credits past coaches, such as Chow and Dan Mullen (at Mississippi State and Florida), for his career success and trajectory.

“I’ve learned a lot from all of those guys, especially offensively,” Johnson said. “It’s a night-and-day difference from how I am as a coach now to when I first started. Really, when I’m in our quarterback room, I try to take everything I’ve learned and mesh it all together in a form that’s easy to digest.”

This season, the Eagles will have faced four opposing teams that have Johnson’s mentees on their rosters — Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Washington’s Kyle Allen, Atlanta’s Feleipe Franks, and Tampa Bay’s Kyle Trask.

» READ MORE: Look at Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, and you see why the Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts

What matters most, though, is Johnson’s dynamic with his current mentee: Jalen Hurts.

Throughout Johnson’s interview process with the Eagles earlier in the year, word eventually got out around with the team. Wide receiver and former Houston quarterback Greg Ward heard Johnson was an interview candidate, and his interest piqued considering their backgrounds at Houston.

Ward immediately hit up Hurts, who already knew Johnson was close to getting the job.

The Hurts-Johnson duo dates back to their home-state Texas roots. Hurts’ father, Averion, was an assistant coach back when Johnson attended Lee High School.

“My relationship with Brian goes long before his coaching time,” Jalen Hurts said. “I remember watching Brian go beat Alabama when he played at Utah. I watched him when I was a kid, even, because my dad coached him. It’s been a great relationship.”

Before Hurts committed to Alabama, Johnson actually tried recruiting him out of high school. He admits he was bummed when Hurts chose the Crimson Tide over Mississippi State.

Turns out, Johnson still got the opportunity to coach Hurts. He only had to wait until Philadelphia.

“It’s a people’s profession,” Johnson said. “You never know where you end up, but you have to understand that people are different and you have to manage personalities. It’s wild to think Jalen’s dad was one of my coaches in high school and here I am coaching Jalen in the NFL.”

Johnson hopes to continue to expound his knowledge and grow together with Hurts, who was recently named as a Pro Bowl alternate for the NFC team in just his second season. Some fans and pundits still aren’t sold on Hurts being the Eagles’ long-term solution under center, but he’s doing what he can to silence his critics.

Asked what phase of his game Hurts needed to improve most this season, Johnson offered a detailed response: “One of the things we really took a hard look at was Jalen in the drop-back game and him being able to maneuver the pocket. Being able to get balls off and create operational space in the pocket with great ball security and moving with two hands on the ball. So often, you see quarterbacks and strip-sacks, guys being loose with the ball in the pocket. Jalen can’t be doing that.”

With three regular-season games remaining, Hurts has guided the Eagles to a 7-7 record. Over 13 games, Hurts has completed 61.2% of his passes for 2,731 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Like Johnson during his playing days, Hurts is the team’s leading rusher with 733 yards on 130 carries (5.6 average) with a franchise-record 10 rushing touchdowns.

The way Johnson’s eyes open up while he discusses Hurts’ strengths and weaknesses is a telling sign of how much he cares for his mentee.

“The fundamentals of being able to [maneuver] around and create space in the pocket and then breaking when you need to — Jalen managing that line has been something he’s worked crazy at, and it’s what’s going to make him really, really successful in this league.”