SALT LAKE CITY — Utah quarterback Travis Wilson is appreciative of his situation. The true freshman likes playing for the nation's youngest offensive coordinator, 25-year-old Brian Johnson.
"I think it's definitely good because he's young and he's been in my shoes. So he knows what he's talking about," Wilson said. "He's played here, so he definitely knows what's going on. It's great having him as a coach."
Johnson, who capped his career at Utah with Most Outstanding Player honors in the 2009 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, has plenty of experiences to share with the 18-year-old Wilson.
This week it's all about coming through on the road. The Utes enter Saturday's game against Washington in search of their first win away from home this season. In his four games as the starting quarterback, Wilson is 2-2 — Utah defeated California and Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium and fell to UCLA and Oregon State on the road.
Johnson can relate. When he replaced Alex Smith as Utah's starter in 2005, it took a little time to secure a road win. Although Johnson led the Utes to early home wins over Arizona, Utah State and Air Force, things didn't go so well outside of Salt Lake City. He recalls an overtime loss at TCU, which snapped an 18-game win streak, and a narrow loss at Colorado State that ended with the offense getting stuffed at the goal line. A two-touchdown setback at North Carolina was sandwiched in between.
Johnson's first road win as the starter didn't come until a 42-32 triumph at UNLV on Oct. 22, 2005. His road struggles eventually went away. Later in his career, Johnson wound up leading the Utes to victories at places like Louisville and Michigan.
"Great teams find a way to win big games on the road and that's the next step for us as a program," Johnson said as the Utes prepared for this weekend's game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. "It's a great opportunity, a great challenge for our guys.
For Wilson, it's "definitely the next big thing" in his progression.
"I definitely feel like I've improved every game. My confidence has gained every game, too," Wilson said of his development. "So I just need to keep on going with that and make sure I have an amazing game this weekend."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is especially pleased with Wilson's improving pass efficiency. He completed 17-of-21 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 49-6 win over Washington State.
"Even though the total raw yardage hasn't changed a lot," Whittingham said, "he's becoming a lot more efficient."
And that, he added, is the name of the game. Aside from an interception, Wilson was also happy with his performance against the WSU Cougars. He missed only four throws and connected with 14 different receivers.
"If I definitely keep up that kind of completion percentage I think I'll be pretty good in the long run," Wilson said. "I trust every wide receiver I have. I know they'll catch the ball if I put it in the right spot. I want them to be able to make plays, too."
Whittingham credits Wilson's evolution as a major factor in Utah's emerging offensive. The once-stagnant Utes racked up 453 yards of total offense and 24 first downs against Washington State.
It was the latest chapter in what Whittingham pointed out as continual improvement by Wilson.
"He's just maturing and getting better every week," said running back John White. "He's learning every day and every week and he's just going to keep on progressing."
The process may be enhanced, Whittingham noted, by having Johnson on the field during games instead of calling plays from the box. The move was made two games ago.
"It's been a lot better," Wilson said. "He's been there to be able to be face-to-face with me and just be able to communicate with better instead of talking on the phone."
Johnson also likes the arrangement.
"I think it's been a huge help. So much about this game is passion, energy and emotion and demeanor," said Johnson, who believes that having clear, concise, eye-to-eye conversations with Wilson and getting a true feel for situations has been beneficial.
Johnson said Wilson shows great poise and can recall in great detail what he saw in the last series after coming off the field. It's exactly what shows up on tape, Johnson continued.
"I think part of being a great quarterback is being able to describe the picture of all 22 and be able to relay the information to get things adjusted," Johnson said. "And he has all the physical tools."
As if that weren't praise enough, the winningest starting quarterback in team history (26 victories) had even more for the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder from San Clemente, Calif.
"He's going to be a ton better than I was. He's going to be a great player," Johnson said. "For him to show the type of poise that he has for a freshman is actually pretty impressive."
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