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Johnson's injuries jumpstarted Utah's success

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
It's taken Brian Johnson nearly three seasons to realize, but suffering a season-ending knee injury during his sophomore year in 2005 might have been the best thing that happened to him and Utah football.

It's the only reason Johnson, a fifth-year senior who had to redshirt the 2006 season, is around this year to lead the Utes to a 12-0 season, an Allstate Sugar Bowl berth and a chance to become the most successful team in the history of the Utah program.

Johnson remembers the moment of the injury all too well. It was against New Mexico, 10 games into the season. Johnson decided to take off on fourth down and was scrambling toward the first-down marker when he was hit awkwardly while cutting to stay inbounds. He felt the knee give way and knew his season was over.

But his career was just beginning.

After Johnson got over the initial frustration of the injury, he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. So he spent that time in the film room, studying opponents, and crafting game plans with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. He started to notice opponents' tendencies and started to realize that being a great quarterback wasn't just about putting up great numbers, it was about putting his team in a position to win by making smart decisions.

"After I tore my ACL in '05, I was preparing before, but I think after that my preparation has kind of picked up each and every year since then," Johnson said. "I was putting up some pretty good numbers, but we weren't winning ballgames. It wasn't translating to the field. So I just tried to take a different approach to it and tried to beat teams mentally. Understand their tendencies, understand what they were trying to do defensively, and going out there and trying and execute."

Johnson said when the coaches informed him that he wouldn't be playing in 2006, he sat down with Ludwig and coach Kyle Whittingham and looked at a depth chart. They highlighted all of the players that would be seniors in 2008 and reassured Johnson that he was sitting out the 2006 season with the future in mind.

So Johnson kept that future in front of him, not knowing exactly what would happen, but knowing that whatever it was, he'd be prepared for it.

But the one thing he wasn't prepared for was getting hurt again.

Johnson suffered a separated shoulder against Oregon State, the first game of the 2007 season, and missed two complete games before coming back about two weeks earlier than he probably should have. But he said despite the injury, the Oregon State game changed him.

"For me, I think my junior season before I got hurt, especially the Oregon State game, I thought that was one of the best games I had played to that point before I separated my shoulder," Johnson said. "The light bulb just kind of flipped on for me and I was like, 'OK, this is what you have to do in order to win a football game.' My focus became more on winning football games and much less on statistical numbers."

Johnson played hurt the entire 2007 season and admits that he didn't have the type of year he should have. He also started playing more conservatively, which was both a product of his injuries and his studies. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of danger, Johnson said he started to hang in the pocket, wait for his receivers to get open or if they didn't, he threw the ball away.

"Coach Lud told me there's no need to take unnecessary hits, which I was doing a lot of my sophomore year," Johnson said. "I was just kind of running and just playing back-yard football and not staying in the pocket when I needed to stay in the pocket and deliver the ball. For me, it's been a situation of developing and maturing and just becoming more poised in the pocket."

Whittingham said after the injuries, Johnson started to think like a coach. So, during the 2006 season, Whittingham treated his quarterback like one. He had him wearing a headset and carrying the clipboard on the sideline during games. He sat in on meetings and was asked his opinion about certain plays and what would work best against certain defenses. It got Johnson in the mindset that has helped him throw 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions this season and win 20 of the last 21 games he's played.

"He really saw the game through a coach's eyes during that redshirt season," Whittingham said. "It was a great experience for Brian and he came back a more knowledgeable and more complete player because of it ... The way that his career has gone, the way that it's shaped up, when you look at it in its entirety, I think it's something he can look back on with a great deal of pride."

Johnson said the Sugar Bowl would be played for that group of players he highlighted on the depth chart back in 2006 as guys with whom he'd share a special season. Players such as receivers Freddie Brown, Brent Casteel and Bradon Godfrey, the team's top three receivers, and running back Darrell Mack, who's second on the team in rushing.

Whittingham said he's OK with that dedication considering Johnson's perseverance to hold fast to that dream is what has Utah a win away from its second perfect season since 2004.

"If you think about it, [Johnson] began his career as a true freshman back in '04 with a win in the Fiesta Bowl and then finished his career with an opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl, with three bowl games and three bowl wins sandwiched in between," Whittingham said. "I think that the success we've had is very closely tied to Brian Johnson and his performance and leadership."