Utah Quarterback Derby:Brian Johnson Will Take Redshirt
It worked for Jim McMahon, and it can work for Brian Johnson.
Utah's quarterbacking dilemma largely was solved Thursday with the decision that Johnson will redshirt and leave the battle to Brett Ratliff and Tommy Grady. That development hardly is surprising. It's exactly how everything was shaping up all summer, until Johnson temporarily threatened to mess up the picture by having a brilliant scrimmage last Saturday.
So now, Johnson will sit out this season and have two more years to play. That's just how McMahon's career went
at Brigham Young, and he ended up being the No. 5 overall draft pick by the Chicago Bears and an eventual Super Bowl winner.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, a Cougar linebacker in those days, obviously learned from observing McMahon's experiences. He also knows there's such thing as having too many good quarterbacks, and the availability of Johnson's redshirt year was just what he needed to thin the crowd.
It also makes complete sense for Johnson's career path. As he said, "I have a long future ahead of me playing football."
And the collegiate segment just got longer, which is good for the Utes.
No question, Whittingham owed Johnson a chance to compete for the job this month. Just as certainly, this was the only outcome that everybody could live with.
Unlike Johnson, who's coming off a knee injury, McMahon was perfectly healthy in 1979 when he agreed to redshirt, a move that took some convincing.
"I don't think he was very happy about it, because in his mind, he felt he was the better player," said former BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who has consulted Whittingham about the Utes' QB situation.
Edwards remembers having even more trouble getting offensive coordinator Doug Scovil to go along with the plan, because he was such a believer in McMahon. But giving the job to senior Marc Wilson prevented any repeat of the two-quarterback system that had caused problems the previous year, and the Cougars posted their first unbeaten regular season behind Wilson.
McMahon then led BYU to two more Western Athletic Conference titles - and two Holiday Bowl victories - in his last two seasons. And McMahon knew redshirting was ultimately in his best interests.
"The guy's a lot more shrewd than he's given credit for," Edwards said. "The fact is he stayed there and lived with it and starred for two more years."
Then again, there was no equivalent of Grady in BYU's camp. The Utes' 2007 quarterback derby is already intriguing, with Johnson having to summon the motivation to keep improving this fall without playing in games and Grady dealing with the possibility of not playing much himself, as long as Ratliff earns the job and remains healthy - and unbeaten.
After all, he's 2-0 lifetime, with a distinction no other quarterback in school history could match: victories in Provo and in a bowl game in his only starts.
From watching the McMahon-Wilson dilemma play out during a WAC championship season in 1978 that Edwards still considers one of the most frustrating of his career, Whittingham learned one thing: "Never, ever have a platoon system at quarterback," he said this past spring.
Edwards' recent advice to him was similar: "Pick a guy and go with him."
That's sure to be "Rat," as his teammates call him. Then again, if the Utes happen to lose a couple of September games, there would be cries for Grady to come off the bench and unleash his big right arm, making him very popular, at least until he actually played.
Johnson's willingness to redshirt solved one issue for this season; the rest is up to Ratliff.
Johnson goes from a No. 4 ranking in the country in total offense as a sophomore to the bench, but it's not as if he's really a third-string quarterback. He's just on hold, with the potential of starting for two more seasons - or one, if Grady wins the job as a senior in '07.
So the Utes' crowd of QBs was cleverly reduced Thursday, with one more announcement to come this month. And next August's battle is just getting started.
Kurt Kragthorpe can be reached at email@example.com. To write a letter about this or any sports topic, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.