HOUSTON – Houston alum Justin Johnson was a do-it-all player during his football career at the university. Johnson's senior-season team finished with a 14-1 record in 2011, defeating Penn State in the TicketCity bowl game, earning him first team all-conference honors as a wide receiver.
We caught up with the running backs coach to hear about his transition from playing to coaching, and his philosophy as a coach.
Q: How was it for you coming back home to coach at your alma mater?
A: Any player turned coach, I think it's a dream of theirs to come back and coach where they started playing at. For me it's a blessing. The guy I was coming to work for, the investment that they are making into athletics in general, not just football. So to me it was a blessing. Also, it was a surreal moment the first time I went out there on that field, and then walking around seeing all the new buildings, the indoor facility, some of the things we didn't have at the time that I was playing. But nothing but a blessing to come back home.
Q: When you started your career here you played running back, and then wide receiver, earning first team all-conference your senior year. Did your playing experience make your transition as a coach easier and help you form your coaching philosophy?
A: I think with any position you have to have a sense in a certain way to go about the preparation, and then you need to have the right mentality. My biggest thing with those guys is making sure they are preparing the right way, day in and day out. Knowing their opponent through and through, knowing their assignment, being ready to execute the assignment and then approaching every day and every game with the right mentality. I played quarterback in high school, so I played pretty much every offensive position on the field, outside of offensive line. I think that works to an advantage for me.
Q: What are seeing from the group of running backs you guys have? Four of them are averaging over five yards per carry.
A: Collectively, the main thing is their preparation process, their day-to-day getting themselves prepared to go play a game, and not just wait until game day. We teach that you aren't going to rise to the occasion, you're going to fall back to your training. So we want to make sure that we are training and preparing every day to have success, and then their mentality on their approach to doing it. Then when the ball is in their hands, their mentality to finish and go about it the right way. They have done a great job collectively as a group, holding each other accountable. Once the other guy is in, he knows the expectation and the standard, so he doesn't want to fall short of that. I have been blessed with a great group of men; couldn't ask for any better.
Q: Patrick Carr talked to me about having good practice habits. Does he lead by example?
A: Patrick is simply a hard worker. He is becoming more vocal as a leader, but Patrick is a worker who's going to go by example. He's going to have great days, he's going to have great energy. His main thing is just going about his work businesslike, and making sure he is prepared to put his best product on the field.
Q: Now that sophomore quarterback Clayton Tune is starting, have you put an extra emphasis on the running backs to get off to a fast start?
A: I don't think the approach changes, just because to me if your approach changes that means you weren't fully invested or prepared. I think the approach and mentality is the same. We understand that if given more workload, we are prepared and ready to do that. We understand the expectation if given that and what comes with that. I tell them don't press, just keep in your preparation, keep doing what you are doing day to day, and then the byproduct of that will be what happened on Saturday, or Friday, or Thursday.
Q: The team is about to compete against their third ranked opponent this Saturday, No. 25 Cincinnati. What are some of the things you have seen from them defensively?
A: Defensively they are going to fly around and play through the echo of the whistle. They are going to be aggressive, and they are going to play hard. Their defense is sound, they are going to be where they're supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, and they are going to try to kick your tail doing it. So we have to match their intensity, we have to match their effort, and match their physicality. If we do that we will set ourselves up for success.
Q: During the bye week you were able to go out and recruit. Is the growth of the entire university a pitch you use when talking to recruits?
A: The first thing is, we are in one of the largest major cities. Fourth largest right now, soon to be third by some projections. So you are talking about an opportunity after football as well. You won't have to go anywhere, you could do that right here in Houston. Also, we have a university invested in athletics, that is truly invested into athletics. Whether that be the new indoor facility, the nutrition facility, both football and basketball playing fields. Even other things going on to further the institution, you see the investments on campus. So it's not only what you get on the field, it's what you get off the field as well. As far as the academic side of it, it's a great academic institution. You can find any major or minor that you want to pursue. I think the city value, the school value, and then the product that we are putting together. From the coaches starting from top to bottom they've played and won, plus coached and won. I think we have a group of guys that have a plan, starting with coach Holgorsen, who has done it at the highest levels and knows how to get it done. We are excited to execute that plan, and we are going to execute that plan. We're just pitching to them to be a part of that. We get a lot of guys that venture off and want to come back. We are telling them, guys, hey you've got a chance to start it right here or come here to build it up. This will be a place for years to come that we won't be asking people to come -- they will be excited to come and want to be a part of it.