I think we're at the point where we can comfortably call Mike Johnson UCLA's offensive coordinator, even if we're still waiting on an official announcement. Heading into his fourth season, Rick Neuheisel is hardly in a place where he can be comfortable in his job status considering the progress he made in his first two seasons was torn apart by a 4-8 third season that included a 1-6 finish and loss to USC in the season finale. Now, Neuheisel is in the process of rebuilding his coaching staff and it has begun with the hiring of Mike Johnson.
Johnson comes to UCLA from the San Francisco 49ers, where he took over as offensive coordinator during the 2010 season. Prior to his time with the 49ers, Johnson worked with the Ravens, Falcons, Chargers and Oregon St., either as wide receivers coach or quarterbacks coach.
Johnson's play calling experience is limited, which has caused some to raise a red flag over this hire. Being a 43-year-old who hasn't coached in college since 1999 is a concern to some as well. Toss in the face that his hire comes after a couple weeks hearing about interest in other coordinators and several feel as if this is a case of Neuheisel being forced to settle for his third or fourth choice, but fear not Bruin fans.
Despite several legitimate concerns, Johnson is a very good hire by Neuheisel. When solely evaluating the hire, the Bruins are in a good place, but that's doesn't mean the offense will turn it around despite the unearthed talent within the program. There are factors that can lead to the offense sputtering and Johnson not showing why he is a good hire, but the hire remains a good one.
The most exciting thing that Johnson brings to the table is his familiarity with so many different offenses. He has spent time working in several different kinds of offenses and in a year off from coaching, he studied up on the spread offense, something he worked into his offense with the 49ers.
Ever since the UCLA offense struggled in 2010 despite the implementation of the pistol offense, the debate has raged on about whether the pistol offense can work. Should UCLA look at a spread offense? How about an air raid offense or the pro style offense Norm Chow was so comfortable in? The truth is that the type of offense that the Bruins use doesn't really matter. Any of the offenses have proven to be successful and in recent years offenses have used pieces of two, three or even four different offenses to create their own offense that is a hybrid of different styles and that has been successful. The key is that whatever UCLA is running is something that the entire coaching staff is supportive of and comfortable in. In Johnson, UCLA is getting someone who is comfortable in several kinds of offenses and can put a playbook together that best takes advantage of the players' and coaches' talents, regardless of what label you want to throw on it.
All indications are that Johnson will run an offense that uses a lot of different styles. An offense with pro-style and west coast tendencies is likely and the passing tree will likely come from systems. Johnson has also proven to be enamored with the spread offense and he will almost certainly implement some spread offense in the UCLA playbook. When discussing the UCLA job with Neuheisel, he also made clear that he wanted to use some of the pistol offense so you're going to see an offense that isn't so easily labeled, which is fine The key will be how it is taught.
Some might have issue with Johnson's lack of play calling experience, but it shouldn't be the biggest of issues. Yes, having someone who has called plays for more than three-quarters of an NFL Season would be preferable, but the Bruins' biggest offensive problems has not been play calling. Often, the plays called by Norm Chow in the last three seasons were perfectly fine and could have been successful. Any qualms with play calling in the last three years have been largely overblown. That isn't to say the play calling was perfect, but it was far from the biggest of issues.
UCLA's biggest problem has been in developing players and making them comfortable in the offense. That is the work that goes on in the offseason and every day of the week, save Saturday. Johnson has spent the bulk of his career working with players and teaching. He helped tutor a young Michael Vick and was instrumental in the development of Alge Crumpler, who made his first Pro Bowl under Johnson's tutelage. Player development has been Johnson's game, which happens to coincide with UCLA's need.
For those still concerned about Johnson's lack of play calling experience, it's not as bad as it seems. In San Francisco and Atlanta, he played a key role in the building of the offensive game plan. While we only see the play calling on Saturday, it is the game planning that is the hard part of an offensive coordinator's job. Watching film, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of his own team and the opponent, teaching the relevant material to the players and effectively implementing it in practice so it's ready to go on game day is the real work. Saturday is just the execution of the week's work and as someone who has worked extensively on game planning, Johnson is well equipped to step into the play calling role.
Another area where Johnson will help is in recruiting, where he has ties in the Los Angeles area and could be a key to recruiting the inner city. UCLA has recruited well under Neuheisel, but especially lately, Neuheisel has had to do too much of the recruiting himself. Johnson will be an effective recruiter and will help the Bruins keep the cupboards full of talent.
What makes Johnson a good recruiter is not just his connections, but him being very personable and approachable. This is key to the UCLA program where communication hasn't always been at its best. Having someone like Johnson who is an able communicator and at 43, young enough that he should be able to somewhat relate with the kids on the team, is a major plus.
All that said, this hire far from guarantees success for the Bruins. Johnson was actually near the top of Neuheisel's initial list to become offensive coordinator and was contacted early in the process, but he had concerns about how much control he would have over the offense. He agreed to take the job under the agreement that the UCLA offense would be his offense, but Neuheisel is still an offensive minded coach. Although he agreed to hand Johnson the reigns to the offense, there is no guarantee that he doesn't step on Johnson's toes.
Neuheisel could have easily brought in a young coach to help build game plans and teach and call the plays himself, but he chose not to. Neuheisel handed Johnson control and it is imperative that Neuheisel not step on Johnson's toes or it will not matter how good of a hire Johnson is. The offense will sputter if there is friction between the two and in all likelihood, it won't be long before both are looking for a new job. Neuheisel is still a bright offensive mind and should undoubtedly be involved in the offense, but UCLA's offense will be Johnson's and Neuheisel needs to make sure that the lines are clear.
One thing that makes it more likely that Johnson and Neuheisel will work well together and have a healthy dynamic is their familiarity with each other. When Neuheisel was coaching quarterbacks in Baltimore, Johnson was coaching receivers. That familiarity is hugely important because of the trust between Neuheisel and Johnson. That familiarity also makes it far more likely that they will work well together and both will be able to contribute to the offense's success without severe friction.
On the whole, this is a very good hire for the Bruins. Johnson isn't the perfect candidate, but how often does the perfect candidate pan out? All of the best coaches get their starts at some point and giving a coach that start is perfectly fine. UCLA won't exactly be Johnson's start as an offensive coordinator, but it is near his start. The key here is that Johnson has all the qualities and experience that would indicate he will be an excellent offensive coordinator, even as he is near his start.