Utes hope Johnson is even better after a year off

Utes hope Johnson is even better after a year off

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah quarterback Brian Johnson says taking a year off to completely recover from knee surgery has made him even faster.

If that's the case, Utah's offense is in good hands again.

As a sophomore two years ago, Johnson led the Mountain West Conference in total offense and was fourth in the nation, but his season ended when he blew out his knee in late November. He sat out last fall, cheering his teammates during an 8-5 season.

"I think I'm more mobile. That year off gave me some extra time in the weight room and time to develop my body," Johnson said.

The Utes are counting on him, probably even more than they did in 2005 when he became starting quarterback after Alex Smith departed for the NFL following Utah's perfect season in 2004.

Although he hasn't played a game in nearly two years, Johnson's record was impressive enough for him to earn preseason MWC all-conference honors.

He is a solid passer and a great runner, giving the Utes the threat they lacked last season with quarterback Bret Ratliff. Johnson completed 210 of 330 passes for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns and ran 152 times for 478 yards and eight TDs in 2005.

Johnson is perfect for the option, which the Utes plan to use to revive an offense that averaged just 140.5 rushing yards last fall.

"That's what makes it go. You've got to have that guy, and Brian is that type of guy," coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Whittingham, in his third season, could use a good year. He is 15-10 since being promoted from defensive coordinator when Urban Meyer left for Florida.

The Utes have won two consecutive bowl games under Whittingham, but they weren't a threat in the conference in 2005 or 2006.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig would also benefit if Johnson can stay healthy and lead the Utes back to the top of the Mountain West. Utah averaged 368 yards of offense last season, more than 100 fewer than in 2005 and well below the 499.8 yards per game in 2004.

Johnson is much more versatile than Ratliff or Tommy Grady, who completed just seven of 14 passes with three interceptions last fall in his first season. Opponents will have a harder time containing Johnson if his left knee holds up.

"We didn't put a watch on him, but he's playing faster. He's creating when things break down in the pocket," Whittingham said. "I don't know if he's a 10th faster or what the quantitative difference is, but he's definitely moving faster."

If Johnson is keeping the defense off balance, the Utes hope the running backs will have more open space than they did last season, when they didn't have a 100-yard rusher.

The most yards in any game was 73 by Eric Weddle, a defensive back who played both ways to revive the struggling offense.

Running backs Darryl Poston and Darrell Mack are back, and Utah added 235-pound transfer Matt Asiata. He ran for 1,365 yards and 15 touchdowns last year at Snow College but was slowed in training camp by a foot injury.

The Utes are stocked with receivers and have an experienced offensive line, even without tackle Jason Boone, who tore a knee ligament during camp and will miss the season.

Utah has nine starters back on offense, counting Johnson, and Whittingham expects improvement as long as the rushing game is effective.

"Football hasn't changed in 100 years," Whittingham said. "You've got to be able to run, you've got to be able to stop the run."

Utah did a good job of stopping the run last year. Opponents averaged 106.5 rushing yards and 322.2 total yards, ranking Utah fourth in total defense in the Mountain West.

The Utes lost Weddle, the MWC defensive player of the year, to the NFL but still have five players returning on defense and junior kicker Louie Sakoda.

He averaged 44 yards per punt, made 16 of 20 field-goal attempts and didn't miss any of his 43 extra points.

Utah has gone from conference titles in 2003 and 2004 to two consecutive years in the middle of the pack. Johnson believes the Utes should contend for the MWC championship again, but getting there will be difficult.

Utah's non-conference schedule includes Oregon State, UCLA and Louisville.

"I think we have a lot of talent on this team, and I think we have a lot of ability," Johnson said. "It's just a matter of wanting to and a matter of putting it all together."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-08-26-07 1437MDT

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