SAN DIEGO — Eddie Johnson decided to play football at the University of Utah for one simple reason: He is a running back and Utah was a running team.
Was a running team. The Utes are that no longer.
The Utes have not been a running team since Chuck Stobart was fired as coach after the 1984 season. Now they are a passing team, led by Coach Jim Fassel, a former quarterback at USC and Cal State Long Beach. Where once the Utes ran the ball a school-record 71 times in a game under Stobart, last year they passed the ball a school-record 58 times in a game under Fassel.
Such adjustments are not made so easily. Consider what happened to Johnson.
In Stobart's final season, Johnson gained 1,021 yards, making him the leading freshman rusher in the country. In his first season under Fassel, he gained only 384 yards. Slowed by injuries and uncertainty, Johnson seriously considered transferring.
"I wondered if this was the right place for me," he said. "So much had changed. But I'm not a quitter. I decided to try again."
He did more than try. He gained 1,046 yards last season, second only to Steve Bartalo of Colorado State in the Western Athletic Conference.
Johnson also learned how to catch the ball. He caught four passes his entire freshman season under Stobart. He caught nine in last Saturday's game alone, a 24-20 victory over New Mexico.
Such new-found versatility is the reason Johnson will be the focus of attention at 7 p.m. Saturday when San Diego State opens defense of its WAC championship against the Utes at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
"He's the player they want to have his hands on the ball," SDSU Coach Denny Stolz said. "He can do it all. Their offense is designed to get him the ball in open spots on the field. Once he gets in the open field, he can be awfully hard to stop."
At 5-feet 9-inches and 175 pounds, Johnson is somewhat small for a running back, but that does not mean he is easy to bring down.
"You have to wrap him," said SDSU outside linebacker Chuck Nixon. "He is not the kind of player you just hit and he goes down. He bounces off you and keeps going. He has got great leg strength."
Johnson, a first-team all-WAC selection, was the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for Utah last year. The Utes were 2-9 and 1-7 in the conference, including a 37-30 loss to the Aztecs at Salt Lake City. Johnson's 1,046 yards came on only 166 carries, an average gain of 6.3 yards per carry. He also caught 27 passes for 200 yards, including three for touchdowns.
"For myself, I had a good year, but it doesn't mean anything when the team is 2-9," Johnson said. "I kept thinking, 'I'm having a good year, but why aren't we winning?' I didn't have an answer. I'd rather personally have a bad game and the team have a great game and win."
Johnson started this season by catching 9 passes for 92 yards and 2 touchdowns against New Mexico before he sat out the end of that game with a slight concussion. He gained only 14 yards on 9 carries as an inexperienced and injury-riddled offensive line convinced Fassel to rely especially heavily on the passing game.
The weakness at offensive line also prompted Fassel to try a unique offensive formation that resembles something out of a playground game. The Utes stack their tight end and most of their offensive linemen near one side of the field away from the ball. The quarterback aligns in a shotgun with only the center between him and the other team. The wide receivers are split to the opposite side, while the two running backs either line up in the backfield with the quarterback or are deployed as receivers.
It has been called the "Daffy Duck" offense because it is so crazy. But there's a method to this madness, it's another way to get Johnson the ball in the open field.
"We try to get the ball in Eddie's hands at least 30 times a game," Fassel said. "He carried the ball only nine times last week. Actually, he needs to get in the 25-times-a-game category running the ball. He's got the ability, the agility and the durability to do that."
Running the ball comes naturally to Johnson. That was almost all he did when he played football in Santa Maria, Calif., a city of 40,000 about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara. Catching the ball was never required, not in high school--where he gained 2,400 yards a senior--and not under Stobart.
"Everyone told me Eddie couldn't catch the ball," Fassel said. "But I really believe that if a guy is well-coordinated, you can teach him to catch the ball. Eddie was someone who could pick it up right away; he just never had the ball thrown to him. He can be as good a receiver as he is a running back. Anybody who has been around him can see that."