View from the side

Suddenly, last year’s alleged saviors are this year’s saboteurs.

Criticism of quarterbacks Brett Ratliff and Tommy Grady has run amok since the U’s critical loss to Boise State last Saturday. Though Ratliff was hailed as the solution to the U’s offensive inconsistencies after his fearless performance in last year’s two season-salvaging wins-and Grady has long piqued the interests of Ute fans-the two have combined for just nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in leading a decidedly mediocre passing attack that has averaged just 186 yards through the air.

Suddenly, the past isn’t looking so bad.

As an 18-year-old sophomore in 2005, Brian Johnson was fourth in the nation in total offense (337 yards per game) when he went down with a torn ACL that required surgery in December. Even though the first-time starter missed the two most important games of the season, he was still named second-team All-Mountain West Conference, throwing 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Still, Johnson replaced the venerable Alex Smith, and many were quick to denounce Johnson after Ratliff rallied the U against BYU.

“You try not to worry about what everybody else thinks,” Johnson said of the public’s reaction to his injury. “It’s a production-oriented business. It’s kind of like, ‘What have you done for me lately?'”

Does Johnson think the team’s success with Ratliff in the final two games was the result of the team as a whole finally coming together?

“Definitely,” he said. “We started clicking in the (UNLV) game last year on offense. I feel like I was really starting to hit my stride right before I got hurt. Everything was slowing down for me. You could feel the change happen. Unfortunately I got hurt, but when Rat came in we didn’t miss a beat. Everybody rallied around him and we got Travis LaTendresse back, and you got the end product.”

This spring, there was talk of Johnson taking the reins of the offense again. Debate raged over who should start: Grady, Ratliff or Johnson. Yet even though there was a consensus feeling that Johnson outperformed his counterparts in spring practices, coaches asked him to redshirt anyway.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “I knew the situation came down to how healthy my knee was, and at that time, it wasn’t where it needed to be.”

Johnson says his knee feels much better now, but that he “can still try to get it better.”

Many fans found themselves hoping that Johnson’s knee would have felt better in the second half of the UCLA game, and many more vocalized those thoughts at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

“(For) the first couple weeks of the season, obviously it was tough,” Johnson said of watching the Utes struggle from the sidelines. “But I’ve been progressing, and I’ve had a lot of stuff to try to work at. I’d really like to get on the field as soon as I can.”

Johnson’s time on the sidelines also makes him privy to the workings of a coaching staff that has come under fire for the offensive struggles.

“The play-calling has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s not so much about the plays, it’s more the players. It comes down to execution and making plays.”

Although it’s unclear if the U would still consider playing Johnson and “wasting” his redshirt year-especially with talented freshman Kevin Dunn as a potential future option under center for 2008-Johnson keeps busy these days by focusing on improving his game with the scout team.

“(The scout team) has been a different experience,” Johnson said. “It allows me to get a lot of reps, and the good thing about it is I play against the ‘one’ defense every day. It gives me the opportunity to learn the game of football and sit back and become a student of the game. Hopefully it pays huge dividends.”

One other advantage of playing for the scout team is the opportunity to play with senior Eric Weddle, whom Johnson regrets missing out on the chance to play with in regular season action this season.

“Eric is one of my best friends on the team,” Johnson said. “It’s tough watching him play, but I feel real proud that somebody on our team is (really) battling. He had that position switch, and he moved back to corner and had five picks in the last two games.”

Johnson particularly enjoys competing against his friend, the silver lining to his scout team reps.

“I enjoy being on the scout team because I get to challenge him and throw at him every day. It’s definitely making me a better player, and I know it’s making him a better player as well.”