Dan Mullen has known Brian Johnson his entire adult life and then some. He’s known him since Johnson was a 15-year-old star quarterback at Baytown (Tx.) Lee High School, and Mullen, then the quarterbacks coach on Urban Meyer’s staff at the University of Utah, was recruiting him.
For six of the last seven years, Johnson, who turned 34 earlier this week, was an assistant on Mullen’s staffs, first as his quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State (2014-16), then as his quarterbacks coach (2018-19) and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2020) at the University of Florida. Johnson spent one season as the offensive coordinator at the University of Houston (2017).
“He understands the game,” said Mullen, a Drexel Hill native and All-Centennial Conference tight end at Ursinus who has been Florida’s head coach for the last three years. “He understands the technique and fundamentals of the quarterback position. But he can design game plans. He’s a terrific play caller.
“He’s going to be really, really successful. I mean, he already is successful. But he’s going to continue to have great success.”
Mullen assumed it would be at the college level, where Johnson already was a wunderkind. After just one season as the Gators’ offensive coordinator, South Carolina and Boise State both interviewed him for their head-coaching openings.
Surprised by Eagles’ interest
When the Eagles contacted Mullen last month and told him they were interested in Johnson for the quarterbacks coach position on Nick Sirianni’s new staff, Mullen was a little surprised.
Johnson had never worked in the NFL. His lone exposure to the league was an unsuccessful rookie minicamp tryout with the Green Bay Packers in 2009. He didn’t really know Sirianni or anyone on his staff.
“It’s kind of funny,” Mullen said. “Initially, I’m like, the fit up there for him, with Carson Wentz at quarterback, didn’t seem great. He didn’t really know anybody.
“But when I saw that they were trying to trade Carson, and realized what (general manager) Howie (Roseman) was doing, it made a lot of sense. I could see why Brian was such a good fit for them.”
While Sirianni was given the freedom to put together his own staff, it’s likely that Roseman, a University of Florida grad, suggested Johnson, who helped develop Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott at Mississippi State and Kyle Trask at Florida, to him.
In Prescott’s last two years with Johnson at Mississippi State, he ran and threw for 8,813 yards and 80 touchdowns. His completion percentage went up eight points in the three years Johnson was his position coach.
As for Trask, he threw 43 touchdown passes and eight interceptions last season. Three of those eight interceptions came in the Gators’ 55-20 Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma when Florida was missing 25 players, including Trask’s top five receivers, due to COVID.
What really makes Johnson an intriguing hire for the Eagles, though, is his relationship with the man who is expected to replace Wentz as the team’s starting quarterback in 2021, Jalen Hurts.
Johnson has known Hurts since he was 4 years old, when Johnson was a high school player at Baytown Lee and Hurts’ father, Averion, was an assistant coach there.
Several years later, when he was on Mullen’s staff at Mississippi State, Johnson unsuccessfully tried to recruit Hurts, who refers to him as “coach Brian.”
So, Hurts already likes Johnson and trusts him, and that’s all great. But that’s still no guarantee that he’ll be able to help turn Hurts into an elite quarterback.
The Eagles think he can be one, but they don’t really know that yet. Four season-ending starts isn’t a lot to go on.
Hurts excelled as a runner last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and collecting 21 rushing first downs in 18 quarters after replacing Wentz in the second half of a 30-16 Week 16 loss to the Packers.
But he was inconsistent as a passer, completing just 52 percent of his passes and only 39.2 percent on third down. But he did have 16 completions of 20 or more yards in 148 attempts. Wentz had 27 in 437 attempts.
“I think Brian will get the best out of Jalen and help him develop his game further,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who coached Johnson as a player at Utah, gave him his first coaching job in 2010, and made him the nation’s youngest Division I offensive coordinator in 2012 at the age of 25.
“Brian is a great teacher,” Whittingham said. “He’s a communicator. He connects with his players. His personality, players just really take to him. I think that’s going to be a good situation for him.”
Said Mullen: “I think the personal relationship that Brian and Jalen already have will help. But Brian’s background with running the spread-option type stuff, I think that will help a running-style quarterback like Jalen. I think that’s definitely something he’ll be bringing to the table.”
Johnson’s playing career
Whittingham, who has been the Utes’ head coach since 2005, and Mullen have been the two biggest influences on Johnson in his career.
Johnson finished his playing career at Utah as the winningest quarterback in school history with a 26-7 record as a starter.
He led Whittingham’s 2008 team to a 13-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking. He threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns in the Utes’ 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that year. He was named the game’s Outstanding Player.
The Sugar Bowl would turn out to be Johnson’s last game as a player. He went undrafted and wasn’t signed as a free agent. A couple of CFL teams expressed interest, but nothing materialized. He signed with the New York Sentinels of the fledgling United Football League, but was cut a month later.
Four months later, Whittingham brought him back to Salt Lake City to be his quarterbacks coach. He still was a month shy of his 24th birthday. Less than two years later, Whittingham made Johnson the youngest Division I offensive coordinator in the country.
“Brian’s intellect, his football IQ, is off the charts,” Whittingham said. “It was very apparent, even when he was still playing, that he had all the things to succeed in this profession. It was just a matter of whether he wanted to go in that direction. He’s an outstanding football coach.”
After two years as Utah’s offensive coordinator, Johnson was offered the quarterbacks coach job at Mississippi State by Mullen.
“The SEC was pretty attractive,” Whittingham said. “The move made sense for Brian career-wise. We hated to see him go. But I didn’t want to hold him back or try to talk him out of it.”
Off Johnson went to Starkville, Miss., where he did an impressive job helping develop Prescott. Initially viewed by many scouts as a late-round option quarterback with limited passing skills, Prescott was a two-time first-team All-SEC selection and was the Most Outstanding Player at the 2016 Senior Bowl.
The Cowboys took him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, 133 picks after the Eagles took Wentz. He has a 97.3 career passer rating, a 66.0 career completion percentage and a plus-66 touchdowns-to-interceptions differential.
Johnson, who was just 33 last year when Mullen added offensive coordinator to his title, did another excellent job helping develop Trask after moving to Gainesville. Trask threw 68 touchdown passes the last two seasons and could be a Day 2 pick in the draft.
“One thing Brian brings to the table is experience playing the position,” Mullen said. “He’s a younger guy, so he relates to the players, but has tremendous maturity for his age with respect to how he handles situations as a coach.”
Johnson sought Mullen’s advice before taking the job with the Eagles.
“He’s like family to me,” Mullen said. “We’re close. So, we discussed it. Talked about it. Talked about the different opportunities and the different paths and the potential long-term effect of each path that he might follow.
“He had interviewed for the two head-coaching jobs, but didn’t get them. To be honest, I didn’t think he would go anywhere. He was a coordinator here and so close to getting a college head-coaching job.
“But every opportunity is really unique within itself. Just like he was in the college ranks, I think he’ll be a fast riser in the NFL. I’m happy for him.”
Whittingham feels the same way.
“I know one thing,” he said. “Brian is going to succeed. That’s pretty much a given. I have no doubt of that. He’s got the right temperament for the National Football League.
“It’s a little bit different mentality. There’s a little bit different approach with professional players than with college players. But it’s my guess he’s going to make that transition very well.”