How ‘uncommonly bright’ Ben Johnson became rising coaching star, Detroit Lions OC

Detroit Free Press

Gary Tranquill was experimenting with different concepts in his first year as offensive coordinator at Boston College, bouncing between the huddle and no-huddle offenses, when his first-year graduate assistant, his former walk-on quarterback at North Carolina, Ben Johnson, came up with a simple but ingenious plan to help ease Tranquill’s burden as play caller.

Johnson, who was named Detroit Lions offensive coordinator earlier this month after helping jumpstart the Lions’ dormant passing game in the second half of last season, used his computer science background to write a simple program that color-coded the calls on Tranquill’s play sheet and coordinated them with the wristband B.C.’s quarterbacks wore in games.

“Coach Tranquill, he knew that blue was always going to be a 12 personnel call and red was always going to be an 11 personnel call — and I can’t remember the exact order of anything, but the quarterbacks knew, blue is 12 personnel,” recalled Sean Devine, then-Boston College’s offensive line coach and now an assistant at Villanova. “That kind of organized their thoughts into, hey, based on the game plan that week, it was a check-with-me run or it was a play-action type of deal. It just basically helped settle the quarterbacks. ‘OK, color-coded, I know I’m in red, I know I’m in 11 now.’ That’s third-down pass or screen game, whatever that might have been for the week.”

The colors on the wristbands and play sheets have changed over the years, and in some cases disappeared. But Johnson’s reputation as an “idea guy” and problem solver has helped fuel his climb up the coaching ladder, where at 35 years old he is one of the youngest coordinators in the NFL.

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In a league enthralled with finding the next hot young offensive innovator, the Lions believe they have one on staff.

Hired as an offensive quality control coach in 2019 after stints at Boston College and with the Miami Dolphins, Johnson spent the past two seasons as tight ends coach before taking over as pass game coordinator midway through last season.

With head coach Dan Campbell calling plays and Johnson’s influence evident, the Lions went 3-5-1 in the second half of the season and got substantially more out of a downfield passing attack that languished during their 0-8 start.

Jared Goff saw his passer rating rise by nearly 20 points. Amon-Ra St. Brown had one of the most productive six-game stretches of any receiver in the league. And Johnson earned high marks from his players and colleagues in the building.

“Ben really stepped in there about halfway through the year and became very involved in having a lot of ideas and installing things and having his hand on a lot of the stuff the quarterback position was doing,” Goff said after the season. “Really every position, wide receivers, and really just heightening everybody. His ceiling is, the sky’s the limit for him and excited to hopefully have him back and we’ll see where that goes.”

‘An idea guy’

A self-described “math geek” who never considered a career in coaching until college, Johnson grew up the son of educators in Asheville, North Carolina. His father is a retired high school principal and one-time football coach, his mother still teaches at one of the middle schools in town, and his sister is an assistant principal at his old high school, A.C. Reynolds High.

Johnson quarterbacked Reynolds to a 4-A state championship his junior year, when the Rockets had a stingy defense led by North Carolina recruit Chase Rice, who went on to appear on “Survivor” and become a country music star.

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Johnson led a less-talented Reynolds team to a league title and playoff appearance as a senior, when ex-Reynolds coach Steve McCurry said he put more on Johnson’s plate at quarterback.

“High school obviously has changed with the spread offense,” McCurry said. “As you know everybody used to be sort of play in the phone booth, I formation, very simple scheme. It almost felt like, Ben, it bored him a little bit because it didn’t challenge him mentally. It was a simple scheme. As far as the videos, it was sort of, it was boring for him. But (had we run a) one-back set with four wide or empty set, looking back on it, with his skill set, he would have definitely blossomed in that as well.”

Johnson earned a near-perfect score on the math portion of his ACT and McCurry said he asked Johnson to tutor some of his players who were struggling with their grades during the team’s championship run.

“I realized how gifted Ben was,” McCurry said. “And he just jumped all over that and never hesitated. And I can remember staying hours, hours after practice helping our student-athletes stay eligible. He had all the tools. I mean, just as a coach, you always, here kind of early, leaving late, helping other students. He was a coach on the field. If I had to do it over, I’d probably let him just call the plays.”

Recruited by Ivy League schools and offered a preferred walk-on spot at Wake Forest, Johnson instead chose to play at North Carolina, where he learned under Tranquill and others who helped jumpstart his coaching career.

Johnson never attempted a pass in college, but he spent the 2007 season relaying signals to then-freshman quarterback T.J. Yates and served as a conduit between Yates and new quarterbacks coach John Shoop.

Shoop, who spent 12 years as an NFL assistant before returning to college, called Johnson an “uncommonly bright” person and one of the most cerebral quarterbacks he’s ever coached.

“He really had kind of a professional attitude and a leadership role in that room as he’d been there for a while,” Shoop said. “And really did kind of set the tempo for how we go about our business in the quarterback’s room. That is, we study hard, we know the game plan thoroughly, we test each other. Ben’s the kind of guy that kind of established this level of peer pressure, in a good way, though. Peer pressure to make sure you’re taking care of your business, make sure everybody’s on top of what they need to be. And I leaned on him for that.”

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Johnson spent a year out of football after graduation, living with some of his ex-North Carolina teammates while working as a software developer in Durham, North Carolina, then joined Frank Spaziani’s staff at B.C. on the recommendation of Tranquill.

At Boston College, Tranquill said Johnson helped him build scouting reports and decipher the tendencies of opposing defenses. In 2011, after an in-season staff change, Spaziani promoted Johnson to tight ends coach.

“He was an idea guy,” Tranquill said. “I even recognized that when he was a player. He saw things a little bit differently from most kids, and then when he was involved with game planning and everything at B.C., you could tell he had some good ideas.”

‘He’s really earned it’

When Adam Gase took over as Dolphins head coach in 2016, Campbell, who had finished the 2015 season as interim Dolphins coach, told him there was one assistant he’d be a fool to let go.

“Can’t remember exactly if he had some other opportunities to go other places, but I just remember Dan and a couple other guys were like, ‘Dude, this guy’s really good. He’ll be a position coach quick, he’ll be a coordinator eventually,’” Gase said. “And when we started he was an offensive assistant and we were kind of loaded up with how many quarterback coaches we had, so we put him with the wideouts. And I can’t remember if it was second or third year, but I think I made him the wideouts coach. I mean, he was super smart, he’s really good in front of the room. He’s a really good coach on the field.”

Johnson has worked with virtually every position on offense as an NFL assistant, and worked alongside a handful of diverse play callers who he said in the fall have helped shape him philosophically.

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In 2012, he served as an offensive assistant on a Dolphins staff that included Campbell (then Miami’s tight ends coach), Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, ex-Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman and current Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor.

Taylor called Johnson “brilliant” at Super Bowl 56 last week and said he tried to hire Johnson “many, many, many times” for his staff.

In 2013, Johnson was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach, where he worked under Taylor. And in 2015, Campbell made Johnson his tight ends coach after Campbell took over the interim role.

Gase retained Johnson as assistant wide receivers coach and eventually gave him the wide receiver room after he said Johnson distinguished himself with his energy and teaching ability.

“It’s hard not to notice when a guy is so hands-on, running around,” Gase said. “You can just tell. When you get done practicing, the guy probably looks like he just practiced compared to other guys. His shirt would always be a different color than everybody else’s. Like, you just see the guy worked his ass off that day.”

Johnson’s hire with the Lions barely made a ripple in 2019, and few noticed his promotion to tight ends coach in 2020 or when Campbell kept him on staff last winter.

Shoop, who now teaches at Johnson’s old high school and lives down the street from Johnson’s parents, said that is part of Johnson’s allure as a coach, too.

“Ben’s dad was a high school principal here in town. It’s not like his dad was a big-time coach and he was riding his coattails,” Shoop said. “Ben was a walk-on quarterback. It’s not like he was 10 years in the NFL and then kind of stepped into this. Everything, every step of the way that Ben has climbed in this profession, he’s really earned it. And I value that. He’s had good times and he’s had some really bad times as well. Some good seasons, some bad seasons. I think that makes for a really durable coach.”

Shoop landed his first job as an NFL offensive coordinator under circumstances similar to Johnson’s in Detroit: He was a 30-year-old assistant coach with the Chicago Bears in 2000 when he took over play-calling duties late in the season after Gary Crowton left to become head coach at BYU.

With Shoop as their full-time offensive coordinator the next season, the Bears went 13-3, had the NFL’s 11th-best scoring offense and won the NFC Central.

“I think he’s going to hit the ground running,” Shoop said. “My first year as coordinator we went 13-3 and part of it was just cause we hit the ground running. I called the last few games the previous season so it was like we were already going and I’m hoping that’s the case with the Lions, too. Ben, he’s seasoned. For a guy his age, he’s got some seasoning. There’s some 30-year-olds that don’t have much seasoning. He does.”

Johnson said at Senior Bowl practices earlier this month, before his promotion became official, that his charge as coordinator would be to make Campbell’s vision for offense come to life.

What that vision looks like will depend largely on how the Lions construct their roster.

Goff should be back at quarterback and the Lions return their entire offensive line, but they want to add as many as three receivers to the passing game and hope to build a more formidable defense.

Gase said he’s “excited” for Johnson, and to see how the Lions offense evolves in 2022.

Johnson has told friends he’s eager for the opportunity, too.

“I think there’s something to be said for paying your dues and it’s a humbling deal, particularly early on, and you’re just grinding and learning as much as you can,” Johnson told the Free Press at the Senior Bowl. “Personally in my experience, I wouldn’t trade it off for anything. I’m a better coach today because of what I went through 10 years ago, five years ago, two years ago. All of it. It all adds up, and to that point, five years from now I’m going to be a better coach than I am today. It just keeps going.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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