Jalen Hurts' 20-year story with Eagles OC Brian Johnson has new twist

Jalen Hurts' 20-year story with Eagles OC Brian Johnson has new twist

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The parallel paths of Jalen Hurts and Eagles OC Brian Johnson: How they've become stars together

PHILADELPHIA -- Brian Johnson kept his long-standing relationship with quarterback Jalen Hurts under wraps.

He had no prior history with newly minted Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni or then-offensive coordinator Shane Steichen before interviewing for the quarterbacks coaching job in January 2021. The first time the three met was when they walked into the NovaCare practice facility together that day.

They ended up talking ball for eight hours and not once did Johnson mention that he had known Hurts -- the Eagles' second-round pick in 2020 -- since he was in preschool; that Johnson was coached by Hurts' father, Averion, as a high school quarterback, and was close with the entire family; that he recruited Hurts to join him at Mississippi State, and later the University of Florida; and that he was one of the first to see in Jalen what others might have missed.

"I didn't want to really put that out there," Johnson said.

It wasn't until after Johnson got the job that he told them about his history with Hurts, who had no idea Johnson was even up for the gig.

"I remember I called him when I got the job," Johnson said, his smile widening, "and he was like, 'What?!'"

That was the start of the pair's rapid ascent as Hurts, under Johnson's tutelage, went from Carson Wentz's backup to franchise quarterback in two years flat. He inked a five-year, $255 million extension this offseason following an MVP-caliber 2022 campaign that culminated in a top-shelf performance against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.

Johnson, in turn, has become one of the hottest coaching names in the business. A host of teams requested to interview the 36-year-old for their vacant offensive coordinator positions this offseason before he was elevated to the same post in Philadelphia after Steichen left to coach the Indianapolis Colts.

"He's going to be a star one day. He's going to be a big-time head coach one day," Hurts said during the lead-up to the Super Bowl. "Hopefully we can keep him here as long as we possibly can, but nonetheless I'm proud of him and it's definitely just the beginning for the both of us."

Next up is a 2023 season rife with promise. Sirianni says he has seen another "jump" in Hurts' game, and as the primary playcaller, Johnson will be the voice in Hurts' ear before every snap, putting trust earned over the last two decades into action.

Johnson's first memories of his quarterback stretch back to when Hurts was 4 or 5 years old, running around the Fieldhouse at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, Texas.

Hurts' dad, Averion, was the defensive line coach there during the early 2000s while Johnson was a student and quarterback for the school. Averion ran the weightlifting program during the summer and would often bring his boys, Jalen and older brother Averion Jr., to work with him.

Stuck behind Drew Tate -- the future Iowa signal-caller -- Johnson didn't take over as the starter until his senior year, but Averion Sr. kept Johnson's confidence up during that time.

"Where we're from, there weren't a lot of African American coaches in higher ranks," said Terrance Job, a former high school teammate of Johnson's and the current running backs coach at Channelview High School. "And [Averion] was one of those few guys that was in that role that kids could relate to. And Brian was one of those kids that just related to coach Hurts and his demeanor, how he was about his business and how he went about doing his stuff professionally."

Life got busy for Johnson post-graduation, going from Utah quarterback into the coaching ranks, first for his alma mater followed by stops at Mississippi State, Houston and Florida. When Averion Sr. took over as head coach for Channelview, Johnson made it a stop on his recruiting trail -- reuniting him with the Hurts family and allowing him a glimpse at the high school version of Jalen.

"I didn't even recognize him," he said. "This big, strapping dude with these big, long dreads comes out [of the weight room] and I was like, 'Who is this kid?' '[Someone] said, 'That's J.' I was like, 'No way.' The J I remembered was a little kid."

Johnson came back later that evening to watch Channelview practice. He could tell by night's end that Hurts, not even into his sophomore season, was going to be special.

"He might have been the first one to see something in [Jalen]," said Patrick Robinson, Johnson's cousin and former high school teammate.

"The most successful guys all share some of the same qualities in terms of their determination, how they handle adversity, their competitive spirit, leadership qualities. I think all the stuff that's really intangible separates guys once the talent level kind of equals out," Johnson said. "There was no question in my mind that he had the talent. But then you saw his presence, you felt his presence. It was something that to me, I thought, he has a chance to be a great player."

Johnson prioritized Hurts as a recruit and visited Channelview often, strengthening his bond with the family and joining them for crawfish dinners.

As decision time neared, Johnson's efforts put Mississippi State in the running -- even having then-quarterback Dak Prescott host Hurts for a visit -- but a Nick Saban visit down to Channelview ultimately helped swing things in favor of the Crimson Tide.

"Even when Jalen picked Alabama, Brian was still like, 'If you need anything, if you want to talk about anything, don't hesitate to call me,'" Job said. "He was still that guy to be like, 'I genuinely want you to be successful.' ... He loves that kid."

Johnson tried to land Hurts again while on staff at the University of Florida when Hurts decided to transfer out of Alabama, but Hurts chose Oklahoma.

Johnson knows what the limelight is like: He was a four-year starter at Utah from 2004-08 and went 26-7 as a starter for the Utes while throwing for over 7,800 yards with 57 touchdowns to 27 interceptions. He even appeared on the cover of the PlayStation video game NCAA 10 after leading Utah to a perfect 13-0 record during the 2008 season.

But plenty of his teeth-cutting came behind the scenes. After stepping onto campus at age 17, then-Utah quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen told Johnson to attach himself to the hip of star quarterback Alex Smith and learn through osmosis. Johnson took that directive seriously, even living in Smith's Salt Lake City basement for the first month of school.

"I remember one night we're sitting there, it's 11 o'clock at night, big argument in the staff room about what we're doing," Mullen said. "Alex is in the meeting, he's used to it, and there's a 17-year-old Brian Johnson sitting in the staff meeting with coaches yelling and screaming at each other ... because he just followed Alex to figure out how to get it done."

Johnson spent two years as Utah's quarterbacks coach after graduation. In 2012, he was promoted to become the youngest FBS offensive coordinator in the nation at 24. His next stop was quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State, where he is credited with the development of Cowboys starter Dak Prescott.

"Dak is the ultimate 'it' guy, right? He's the ultimate leader. But he had a lot of work to do as a quarterback," said Mullen, who hired Johnson at Mississippi State and later, Florida. "He had every intangible that you could want. But he was an average thrower. He was an OK runner. And he wasn't that big, either. So Brian, he did a great job of making sure he never lost the intangibles, and built up every part of his game and utilize his game and improve his game."

Prescott was a fourth-round pick by the Cowboys in 2016 and is entering his eighth NFL season. He's a two-time Pro Bowler and has thrown more touchdown passes over his career (166) than any other Dallas quarterback save Tony Romo (248). But three words Johnson drove into him way back in 2014 still serve as a foundation for his approach: Have a plan.

"I remember one day having a s---ty practice and him bringing the quarterbacks together," Prescott said, "and holding us to such a high standard."

"I know exactly the meeting he is talking about," Johnson said.

It followed a frustrating training camp practice heading into Prescott's junior year. On multiple occasions Prescott and fellow quarterback Damian Williams were sacked while in empty protection because they failed to anticipate pressure and get rid of the football.

"It was a nightmare," Johnson said.

Back in the film room, Johnson teed off.

"Knowing he was going to get on my ass when I didn't do right and holding me to those standards that I expected, that was a moment I remember," Prescott said, "and it's the epitome of why he's having success at such a young age...That's just being cerebral and risk versus reward and that goes back to having a plan, which he taught me, and you see it in Jalen's game."

"It sounds like the message got across loud and clear," Johnson said with a laugh. "And I'm glad to see that it's stuck because that was a good lesson to take for sure."

During his time at Florida, Johnson helped develop Kyle Trask, who led the NCAA in passing touchdowns (43) and was second in passing yards (4,283) during their final season together in 2020. 

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Johnson's profile as a college coach helped shape Sirianni's decision to hire him in Philly. Sirianni and the Colts staff had experienced success in plucking coaches from the college level, including pass game coordinator Kevin Patullo, who was previously with Texas A&M, in part because it allowed them to take pieces from the college offense and apply it to what they were running on the professional level.

"We were looking for the best coach in that scenario, and Brian was the best coach for the quarterback job," Sirianni said. "And then why do you promote somebody [to OC]? ... I've been on a two-year interview with Brian and he just shines every single day. We're a product of the way our players play on the field, and [Hurts] has played great and he continues to develop. Brian has a really bright offensive mind."

After talking with the Titans for their opening, Tennessee's director of football administration John Streicher reached out to Brett Elliott, who coached quarterbacks alongside Johnson at Mississippi State, and told him: "This guy is going to be a head coach."

Asked why he decided to stay in Philly despite interviewing with several other teams, Johnson called football a relationship business, saying "people matter" and that the camaraderie within the Eagles' building is special.

His relationship with Hurts is the one that matters the most. Asked for a favorite moment from their time together during the team's Super Bowl run last year, Johnson pointed to the moments before the game when they would stand side-by-side during the national anthem.

"He would send those photos to my phone," Johnson said. "Important moments that stick out to me, like how my kids light up when they see him. Those are the moments that I'll remember probably more than any spectacular play he made."

"I've known him for a very long time," said Hurts. "He's been a guy that's always been around in my life, always been someone that's been a family friend. Me watching him play growing up and seeing how things have shaken out, him being a quarterback coach for two years now being the offensive coordinator, I think it's going to be good for us and I think that can definitely be a benefit for us with the relationship that we have."

The odds of these stars aligning have to be astronomical, with Hurts and Johnson crossing paths in Baytown when Hurts was little more than a toddler, then again as an emerging talent in high school, then being joined together at the pro level with the decision-makers having no idea that history even existed. Two failed recruiting efforts, and then a union at the top of the profession, leading each to the pinnacle of the sport.

"Somebody always has a plan," Johnson said. "It wasn't my plan. But there's a plan out there for us all. It wasn't meant for us to be able to work together while he was in college but it all works out how it's supposed to."


credits : https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/37929094/inside-jalen-hurts-20-year-connection-eagles-offensive-coordinator-brian-johnson