New Gophers football offensive coordinator Jay Johnson will be asked to jump-start an offense whose progress stalled in 2015. The Lakeville native was able to do that in his five seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, but this will be a new challenge. Johnson sounded ready for it at his introductory news conference recently. Afterward, he chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q I’m fascinated by the connection between you, your dad [Dick Johnson] and Mitch Leidner, since your dad coached him in high school at Lakeville South. How do you use that relationship — and your Minnesota roots — to your advantage in this job?
A I think it will definitely benefit me. I’ve been away for quite some time, but seeing this evolve through the decades, from going to games at Memorial Stadium and many games at the Dome to now being here, I think there’s that connection. My dad being a longtime high school coach, having that network and familiarity is important. When someone says “Lakeville” or “Waseca” or “Hibbing,” I know what they’re talking about.
Q You have Leidner for a year as a senior. Head coach Tracy Claeys is on a three-year contract, but it’s almost a trial year. Does that create an urgency for you in Year 1 of this job?
A I think there’s always an urgency. That’s the way as a college football coach you approach things in this day and age. For me to come back here is maybe even more of an urgency because I want to see this program do well. I grew up being a fan.
Q The raw materials with Leidner are there. He’s a big, mobile quarterback. How do you get him up to speed with what you want to do in one year and turn him into a more finished product?
A It’s hard to know because I don’t know entirely how they’ve approached things, but I think more than anything it’s “reduce, simplify and let him play.” If we can do that and really put him in that same position in every play from a fundamentals standpoint, we’ll see his abilities blossom even more.
Q You were the starting QB at Northern Iowa for three years while Kurt Warner sat on the bench. How did you fend off a future Super Bowl winner?
A I had a bunch of good players surrounding me. That’s really the only reason why. We kept winning.
Q How did this opportunity with the Gophers evolve, since it sounds like you didn’t really know Claeys very well going into this?
A I knew of Coach Claeys from following Coach [Jerry] Kill and his staff since they got there. … I think it was just the familiarity with the area and there were a couple of guys on staff that I knew very well. Those guys said there might be some interest and I said I would certainly be interested, and things just started to fall into place.
Q Once things settle down a little here, what are you looking forward to the most being back in your home state?
A I’m a huge Twins fan. … I’ve only been to one game at Target Field. But I want to take in a lot of that. I’ve been fishing down in the Gulf of Mexico, but now I can hopefully chase the walleyes a little bit. This is a great place, and it’s kind of neat to be back.