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June 26, 2008

Johnson, Utah could be part of BCS race

Utah won't hesitate to put its season on the shoulders of senior quarterback Brian Johnson.

The Utes just have to hope his right shoulder and his left knee, too, for that matter is up to the task.

Over the past 22 months, Utah coaches have kept a close eye on Johnson, limiting his pass attempts during spring practice and reining him in as a runner last season.

Coaches aren't permitted to watch players' progress during the summer, but the strength and conditioning staff has kept Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in the loop. As Johnson's teammates return to campus for summer classes and voluntary workouts, they're finding Johnson is returning to the form that made him a second-team All-Mountain West performer as a sophomore.

When fall camp opens, Ludwig expects to have a vintage Johnson at his disposal. "You're not holding much back," Ludwig said. "You're giving that guy as much as he can handle. He's proven to be able to handle a lot."

When Utah opens its season in Ann Arbor against Michigan, most fans will tune in to see how the Wolverines have adapted to Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. While Michigan's quarterback will be center stage, Wolverines fans may end up watching the other team to see the finished product. Ludwig called Johnson the "ideal spread-option quarterback" for his combination of skills as a passer and a runner.

Taking over for No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith in 2005, Johnson showed he could command the spread option. In 10 games, he averaged 337 yards of total offense, the fourth-best total in the nation, before his season ended with a torn ACL in his left knee.

Johnson missed the 2006 season and when he returned last season, he was one of several Utes injured in a season-opening 24-7 loss to Oregon State. Johnson left the game with a separated right shoulder. He returned two games later, but coaches had to limit him in the passing game and all but eliminate his running for the rest of the season.

Johnson passed for 1,045 fewer yards and ran the ball 67 fewer times than he did in 2005. Despite the limitations, he went 8-2 as a starter and was the Offensive MVP of the Poinsettia Bowl against Navy.

"We went into the season thinking we were 80 percent spread and 20 percent 'other,' and after Brian was hurt, it shifted," Ludwig said. "It was 80 percent pro-style and I-formation and 20 percent spread. We're back to 80 percent spread and 20 percent 'other.' "

After shoulder surgery in February, Johnson a native of Baytown, Texas, who already has graduated with a communications degree sat out the first week of spring practice. When he returned, he was limited in the number of passes he could throw and attempted only six passes in the spring game.

Brian Johnson's year-by-year statistics:
2007: 1,847 passing yards, 11 TDs and 150 rushing yards, 2 TDs despite hurt shoulder
2006: Did not play after knee surgery in December 2005
2005: 2,892 passing yards, 18 TDs and 478 rushing yards, 8 TDs; 4th in nation in total offense
2004: 142 passing yards, TD and 92 rushing yards, TD as backup to Alex Smith
That has changed as the weather has warmed. Since the beginning of May, Johnson has been able to throw without restriction, though he must warm up longer before working on voluntary passing drills. He's also trying to strengthen his rotator cuff.

"I was building myself up for June and July, when the guys got back in town," Johnson said. "I'm taking it like any other day and just letting it rip."

Johnson isn't the only one looking for a do-over from 2007. Promising junior college running back Matt Asiata also was injured in the season-opener. Asiata was carted off the field after four carries and missed the rest of the season with a broken leg. Then, in the second game of the season, wide receiver Brent Casteel - the team's best deep threat - was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Those two will be back this season, joining sophomore tailback Darrell Mack - who rushed for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns last season - and four returning starters on the line.

"This is the best group of talent we've had since I've been here," Johnson said. "I'm excited about what these guys can do."

If Johnson can stay healthy, the Utes could be a sleeper for a BCS spot again after reaching the Fiesta Bowl in 2004. Archrival BYU is the trendy pick to win the Mountain West Conference and follow the Utes, Boise State and Hawaii as BCS "interlopers." But Utah shouldn't be overlooked.

"There's a lot of energy around the program," Ludwig said. "Brian is at the forefront of all of that."

David Fox is a senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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