The Florida Gators secret guru

Brian Johnson observes warmups before a game—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

“So the index finger is the last one off the ball.”

Brian Johnson motions out with his right arm, dropping each digit, mimicking a ball coming smoothly out of his hand.

“Like a revolver chamber, just spin it and that ball spins like a spiral. So you really wanna guide that index finger being the last one off the ball to get the ball to spin in that motion.”

The Florida Gators quarterbacks coach is explaining what it takes to throw the perfect spiral…and therefore what makes the act one of the most difficult things to teach young passers.

“There’s a bunch of different things that can affect it in terms of like, if they grip the ball too tight, if they grip it too loose, if they hold it too far back, if they hold it too far forward, their release point.”

It’s a lot of physics, he jokes. But it’s the physical act that perplexes the most passers. Off the field though, that’s where Brian Johnson has really honed a style that has proven successful.

Finishing up his second year in Gainesville and fifth overall under head coach Dan Mullen, Johnson has proven his ability to coach the physics, the position and whatever role given to him by his former offensive coordinator at Utah.

“It’s a guy that I coached a little bit, not a ton, but played the position, played at an extremely high level,” explains Mullen, continuing, “[he’s] a younger guy that related to everybody in the room. He’s extremely intelligent. He coaches the quarterback in a way I like them to be coached. He has his own personality to it. We’re different in how we coach them, but we work really well together in that way and have the same goal. He’s extremely intelligent. He brings a lot to the coaching and the technique part to the game. He has a great understanding of playing the position and what it is to be a quarterback on the field and obviously extremely intelligent within the scheme and game plan and play calling.”

Dan Mullen and Brian Johnson work with quarterbacks during spring practice—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Mullen gets labeled a quarterback guru, thanks to guys like Alex Smith, Johnson, Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald—and now Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, so deservedly so. But he quickly defers the credit to Johnson each time the moniker arises.

When the two first met, Mullen was offensive coordinator at Utah and had just brought in Johnson as a recruit. He didn’t have much idea that Johnson would one day become his conduit. But then again, “he was 17 years old,” Mullen laughs. After Mullen joined Urban Meyer at Florida, Johnson stayed at Utah, went on to grace the cover of NCAA Football 2010 and following the 2008 season, he led the Utes to a Sugar Bowl victory. The latter accomplishment meant that Johnson’s Utes and Mullen/Meyer’s Gators were the only teams to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide, who had finished the regular season 12-0 and ranked No. 1.

"I think what he brings to the table is, you know, his experience and playing on a big stage,” says quarterback Kyle Trask.

“Playing big plays, big time college football like he did when he played. I think when he talks to us it's very relatable and very easy to grasp on to, just because he's been there and he's seen it all so, it's just very helpful to have him as a quarterbacks coach.”

Johnson has had his work multiplied this season, essentially having to effortlessly transition calling plays for three very different types of passers in Feleipe Franks, Trask and Emory Jones. Franks completed 76.1% of his passes with five touchdowns and 68 yards with another touchdown rushing before his season ending injury in the third game. Trask has completed 67.6% of his passes, 14th in FBS, with 24 touchdowns through the air and three on the ground. Emory is clocking 65.8% with three touchdowns and four more on the ground with 224 yards. The fluidity to the situation is tethered to how Johnson has set up the quarterback training in practice.

“We help ourself by how we train the quarterback in terms of the amount of reps that we give them in practice. Some places, the starter gets all the reps and the backups don’t get many at all but it’s constant development for us in terms of mental reps, in terms of actual physical reps as well and just explaining to those guys from the very beginning that as a group we have to learn from each others mistakes and understanding that the key to continuing development as a quarterback is not to make the same mistake twice.

“There’s never been a perfect game of football played—Drew Brees came close [Monday] night. But he still had on incompletion right? So the ability for Kyle Trask to learn from a correction on Feleipe or Feleipe to learn on a correction from Emory or Emory to learn on a correction from Trask and kinda have that in your recall so when it comes up for you, it might be a completely different situation but you can kinda go back to that memory bank.”

Johnson leads drills in practice—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

It’s a lesson that Johnson himself has had to rely on as he rose in the coaching ranks. He was hired at 22, giving him something permanent during a season when little else was.

“Football didn’t work out as far as playing so I went back to Salt Lake and hung out that fall, I was doing a bunch of different things. I was a columnist for Salt Lake Tribune, I wrote the weekly column. I was doing radio, I was doing quarterback lessons, stuff like that, kinda just a bunch of little stuff. And right towards the end of the season, I had a meeting with Doctor Hill—Doctor Chris Hill, the athletic director—cause I was thinking about maybe going into administration.”

Instead coach Kyle Whittingham asked him interview for the quarterbacks coach position. Johnson figured why not and went for the interview. He was hired and looking back, laughs at what he didn’t know then that he knows now.

“I definitely feel like I’m a much better coach than I was 10 years ago. So you know, I think just when you get in as early as I did at 22 years old, you don’t know what you don’t know. So there was a lot of on the job training. Fortunately for me I was around some really big time coaches that helped me out and that I was able to learn a lot from and those guys really helped me develop as a football coach and as a person, as a father.

“I had a lot of great examples to follow throughout my career so you know for me, the essence of it is, I think the thing that’s been the most beneficial is the ability to coach different guys different ways and understand that even though you’re coaching a group of guys and a position of guys, they all have different trigger points and different ways of learning. So how you transfer that information to where it makes sense to them is extremely important.”

While each guy is different, there’s one thing that every college player requires. Johnson admits it’s the toughest thing to impart on to young athletes—much more difficult than any pass.

"The biggest thing is teaching those guys that each play is independent. And understanding how to manage the game within each individual play and how to manage each situation within each individual play. And that stuff comes with experience; the more you play, the more you know…and then mentally with their physique, that they’re held to a completely different standard and once they buy into that, I think it really, really makes it a smooth transition for their development.”

When Brian Johnson arrived in Gainesville, he was given the keys to a quarterback room that had little identity and even less confidence. That quarterback room sits directly across the hall from Dan Mullen’s office. But the head coach only pops in every now and then, entrusting his young position coach to handle the vaulted group. In just two short years, Brian Johnson has done just that. He’s given the group a greater understanding of their role, a wealth of knowledge that means they aren’t caught bereft and his own experience from which they can draw.

And of course, how to throw the perfect spiral.

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