Long before Kurt Warner became a Super Bowl MVP, he spent three years as a backup quarterback at Northern Iowa. And which UNI starter blocked Warner’s path to superstardom? It was Jay Johnson, the Gophers’ new offensive coordinator.
“I always tell people, ‘He’s worth millions; I’m a trivia question,’ ” quipped Johnson, a 46-year-old Lakeville native, at his introductory news conference Friday.
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys chuckled at that line, but he knows there’s nothing trivial about Johnson’s importance to Minnesota’s program now.
Claeys is counting on Johnson and new offensive line coach Bart Miller to bolster the team’s scoring output, which ranked 105th nationally this season.
“You always have two or three people in mind when you start a process and then expand it if you need to,” Claeys said. “Both of these guys were on our original list.”
Johnson spent the past five years as the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette, running schemes that were similar to what the Gophers ran under former offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. But there were some key differences.
In 2013, for example, the Ragin’ Cajuns went 9-4, setting school records for first downs (283) and total plays from scrimmage (883).
“We were considered a no-huddle team at times,” Johnson said. “We played with, I thought, fairly decent tempo; other times we didn’t. We were more concerned at the end of the day about being right than we were playing fast.”
The Gophers experimented with a no-huddle offense during spring practice last year but continued to huddle on most possessions this season. Their two-minute offense improved dramatically, though, as the players became more accustomed to playing fast.
“As Jay said, ‘I think at times during the game to be able to change the tempo will help you,’ ” Claeys said. “At the same time, whatever we do best is what we’ll do.”
Johnson used the pistol as his base formation at Louisiana-Lafayette and featured quarterbacks who could both pass and run. Johnson said he met with senior quarterback Mitch Leidner on Friday and told him, “We’re going to do this together.”
In a small-world coincidence, Leidner also hails from Lakeville, where Johnson was a high school standout before heading to Northern Iowa. Both of them were coached by Johnson’s father, Dick. In fact, Leidner went to breakfast with Dick Johnson on Monday.
“I haven’t even seen my dad, and [Leidner’s] having breakfast with him earlier in the week,” Jay Johnson said. “So it’s a really unique deal, but pretty neat at the same time.”
Leidner should be familiar with much of what Jay Johnson does schematically. Louisiana-Lafayette ran the zone read and chipped away at defenses with shorter passes. It was a balanced attack, Johnson said.
“We like to run the football,” he said. “If that is with two [running backs] or three tight ends, or two tight ends, or one back, we will start there. I would say that we are very multiple, from what I’ve done in the past. But these [other coaches on Claeys’ staff] have been very successful now, too, so I’m looking to mold and bring this all together.”
Johnson also served as the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss from 2005 to 2007, under then-coach Jim Bower. The Golden Eagles set a school record for total offense in 2007, as Louisiana-Lafayette would under Johnson in 2012.
“I had conversations with Coach Bower,” Claeys said. “And everyone that I talked to about Jay told me if they got hired as a head coach somewhere that he would be the first coach they would hire.”
Claeys took the advice to heart.