STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Brian Johnson wants his quarterbacks prepared for anything. It’s not enough to be tall and fast and strong, or to have a powerful and accurate arm. As the old boxing adage goes, everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face. Or something unexpected happens. So Johnson asks his players to be instinctive and make what he calls, “superior spontaneous decisions.”
Bad snap? No problem.
Can’t find the laces? Make due.
Wrestling the ball away from a 300-pound defensive lineman? Remember the drill.
"You may think it was easy," Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott explained, "but when you fall and someone is trying to take the ball you don’t want to go against them, you want to go with them.”
Johnson taught him that. He also taught him how to dig an errant snap out of the dirt and how to catch the ball with one hand. In as much as this past spring was about fundamentals and repetitions, the preamble to Prescott’s would-be breakout season was also about learning new things from a new position coach, one who loves to challenge him with awkward situations.
“If you looked [at practice], you’d think it was basketball,” Prescott said. “It’s the ball between the legs, dropping the ball and trying to catch it before it hits the ground.”
Johnson, who left Utah in February to coach quarterbacks at Mississippi State, handles his players a little differently than his predecessor, Les Koenning. Some of that is the way he runs practice. A big part of it is perspective. Koenning has been a football coach for the better part of four decades, a career that began in 1981. Johnson, meanwhile, was born in 1987 and is only six years removed from a storied playing career at Utah that saw him become the school’s all-time leader in wins.
It’s not that Koenning wasn’t a good coach. But Johnson is more relatable to today’s athlete.
Prescott will better understand going up against Alabama because Johnson threw for 336 yards and beat Nick Saban’s defense in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. He’ll better understand his newfound fame and his role as a Heisman Trophy contender because Johnson was Alex Smith’s backup in 2004 when he finished fourth in the Heisman balloting, and Johnson was once on the cover of the EA Sports NCAA Football video game.
And if that’s not enough, Johnson too has played for Dan Mullen. After all, it was Mullen who recruited Johnson to Utah when Urban Meyer was head coach there. It was that preexisting relationship that drew the two together when Koenning went to Texas.
“The guy has played in a lot of big games, has been in their shoes and in their shoes recently," Mullen said. "The fact that he was recruited by me and played a year for me, he knows my expectations, which are pretty high.”
Mullen didn’t hire Johnson simply because he’s young and relatable. It helped, but ultimately he was brought to Starkville to produce. The SEC West is wide open this year. The old excuses of a lack of playmakers and an underwhelming quarterback no longer exist. The parts are all there for Mississippi State to make a run. If Prescott doesn’t develop into an All-SEC quarterback, it would come as a disappointment.
“Obviously there are huge expectations coming in,” Johnson said.
“By no means are we a finished product in what we want to be. We want to continually get better, continually find ways to improve.”
That statement might be a well-worn coaching cliché, but it’s also what Johnson believes. He might be only 27 years old, but setbacks as both a player and coach have left him well-seasoned to the game. Mississippi State represents a fresh start, one he isn’t taking for granted.
“Already at a young age he’s had some ups and downs in his career, and in talking to him, he’s not fazed by any of that,” Mullen said. “To me, that’s something that’s really important. He knows what his job is going to be. As a young guy he’s been in several different roles already, and I think he’s handled all those really well.”
As Johnson sat behind his new desk this spring talking about the move from Utah and the moving truck he still needed to return, he wasn’t trying to sell his youth or his recent playing experience. In fact, he said, “The whole age deal really doesn’t affect me. ... I’ve been young in everything I’ve done in life.”
He could have easily went on and on about what a marvelous talent Prescott is, noting how he finished last season with an epic come-from-behind win over rival Ole Miss before putting on a five-touchdown show in the bowl game against Rice. But the most Johnson will say is, “I like where he’s at” and “he’s super experienced in the system.”
“He’s everything that you look for when you go out and try to recruit a quarterback and an ambassador of your program,” Johnson said of his junior QB. “He’s an extremely hard worker, intelligent and he really raises the level of play.”
And that’s the point. We know about Prescott’s talents and his understanding of Mullen’s offense. Those building blocks are established.
It’s the unknown that we haven’t seen. How will he handle pressure situations? How will he react when something goes wrong? If there’s a loose ball and he’s near it, will he come up with the possession? Will he make the “superior spontaneous decisions” that take quarterbacks from good to great?
If Johnson and his drills have anything to do with it, he will.
“Nobody touches the ball more than [the quarterback],” Johnson said. “You have to be able to handle the ball at awkward angles. What we try to accomplish is creating game-like situations and stuff that’s really going to happen and they can go back and see it on film and say, ‘Hey, that’s our individual drill right there’ when they had to bend at an awkward angle to catch a bad snap or catch a one-handed snap. Stuff like that shows up over the course of playing the position.
“We make it hard for them so when they get in the game it’s not as hard.”