Trivia question Johnson hoping to provide answers on offense

By Ben Gotz

Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys knew after the Quick Lane Bowl it wouldn’t take him long to sort out the team’s new offensive hires.

Both new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jay Johnson and offensive line coach Bart Miller were there to see the Gophers defeat Central Michigan and their hires were announced Dec. 30.

Claeys let starting quarterback Mitch Leidner know about his new coach and got a surprise answer back. Leidner already knew of Johnson. Both are Lakeville natives, and Johnson’s father Dick was an offensive assistant coach when Leidner was the quarterback of Lakeville South high school.

“He said he had breakfast with my dad I guess Monday,” Johnson said. “I haven’t even seen my dad so he’s already had breakfast with him earlier in the week. It is, it’s unique.”

Johnson was hired by Claeys after spending five years as the offensive coordinator for the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Under his direction the Ragin’ Cajuns offense set school records for total offense (5,914 yards) and points (461) in 2012 and total first downs (283) and total plays from scrimmage (883) in 2013.

Claeys said Johnson had been on the Gophers coaching staff’s radar as far back as when they were at Southern Illinois. He was on Claeys’ short list of candidates when the hiring process began and Claeys knew he wanted a more experienced offensive coordinator to take charge on that side of the ball.

“Everybody I had a conversation with about Jay always told me if they got hired as a head coach somewhere, he would be the first coach they would hire,” Claeys said. “I think that says an awful lot about him, not just from the way he attacks the defense on offense but guys where he was on the staff said he was one of the best recruiters on the staff.”

A trivia question

Johnson said he was raised a fan of the Gophers, and remembers attending his first game at Memorial Stadium with his grandparents and watching Tony Dungy at quarterback.

He wasn’t quite good enough to play for Minnesota though. Johnson was invited to the school’s junior day while playing high school football at Lakeville, but ended up going to play quarterback at Northern Iowa.

He was a three-time All-Gateway Conference quarterback and led his team to three conference championships, but his backup soon became more famous than him. Kurt Warner, now a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist, ended up taking over his job.

“I always tell people, he’s worth millions, I’m a trivia question,” Johnson said.

After his playing days he ended up coaching at local college Augsburg, as well as Truman State, Kansas, Louisville and Central Michigan. In 2003 he was hired at Southern Mississippi to work with the tight ends, and then moved to running backs in 2004. From 2005-2007 he took over as the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach, and in 2007 the Eagles set a school record for total offense with 5,066 yards.

Getting multiple

At Lafayette Johnson used more pistol and shotgun sets than the Gophers did under previous offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, but he rejected the notion that he runs a spread system.

“We like to run the football, whether that’s with two backs or three tight ends or two tight ends or one back,” Johnson said. “I would say we’re very multiple.”

Claeys said it was important to him to hire somehow who would still be committed to running the football, because of the weather the Gophers play in and the talented offensive linemen around the area. Johnson also changed the tempo of the offense at times at Lafayette, and said at times they were considered a no-huddle team.

“When you look at offensive philosophies and what you’re trying to do, one of the things I always take into consideration is who is your 11th best player? Who is he? Is he your third wide receiver, is he your second tight end, is he a fullback, is he the fourth wide receiver and then I think that begins to mold a little bit where you’re going to go,” Johnson said.

Johnson will use spring practice to answer some of his own questions and decide what the Gophers will do on offense in 2016 from there. After recruiting ends in early February he said he will meet with the rest of the offensive staff to settle on the team’s terminology for the upcoming year.

He said from there he’ll try to mesh some of the Gophers were doing previously with his own system so Leidner won’t be completely bogged down in a new offense in his final year of eligibility. Leidner will be out for four months this spring with a foot surgery, which will give Johnson a chance to look at some of the team’s other quarterbacks in rising sophomore quarterback Demry Croft and early enrollee Seth Green.

“Demry was obviously in his first year and those things but looks to me like [he is] very talented. Long, can run, can throw it, and looks to me like he fits what we want to do offensively. So that’s what’s excited to me about that,” Johnson said. “I think Seth’s very similar along those lines, absolutely.”

The upcoming season will start with Leidner though, and he and Johnson met Friday so they can work together to build the Gophers offense in 2016. The two Lakeville quarterbacks are hoping to add a little Ragin’ Cajun flavor to inject life into a Gophers offense that finished 13th in the Big Ten in scoring in 2015.

“think there’s a very good nucleus of guys here and that starts at the quarterback position,” Johnson said. “Having a veteran, a competitor, a guy with his spirit is really, really exciting. Really exciting with our young running backs and then our receiver corps.”