Gators notebook: Johnson nominated, Pitts recognized

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts runs with the ball against Tennessee during the second half Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Fresh off his first head coaching interview, Brian Johnson earned another recognition Tuesday. 

Florida’s offensive coordinator was named one of 56 nominees for the 2020 Broyles Award, which is presented annually to college football’s top assistant coach. It’s never been won by a UF staff member, but Johnson — like his quarterback for the Heisman Trophy — is making a strong case. 

The Gators have broken several school and SEC records this season with Johnson calling plays and serving as the position coach for Kyle Trask, who leads the FBS in touchdown passes (38). Johnson’s unit is the No. 1 passing offense in the country and ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring (42 ppg) and yards per play (7.35). 

That production, along with his quarterback resume of Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), D’Eriq King (Houston), Feleipe Franks (Florida) and now Trask, has made the former Utah QB a head coaching candidate at 33 years old. 

Johnson interviewed last week for the South Carolina job, reportedly having a face-to-face meeting with athletics director Ray Tanner. The Gamecocks elected to hire former USC assistant Shane Beamer, 43, the son of former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. 

Nonetheless, it was an opportunity for Johnson to get his feet wet as an interviewee. 

“Yeah, for sure. Ultimately, I think at the end of the day when you get in this profession and you do a good job, people notice. And you get opportunities,” Johnson said. “It was good to get those reps, but I’m really looking forward to what we have going on here. It’s always great to be a Gator, and it’s a big challenge this week against LSU. 

“I’m just really excited about the opportunities we have here, the chance to coach some great players and be with a great coaching staff. It’s work every day to continue to develop as a coach and to put our team in a position to win the SEC.”

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Trask is one of a few Florida players who endorsed Johnson this week as a future head coach. He's spent three years under his tutelage and is now within one score of the school record for TD passes in a season.

“I think he'll definitely be a great head coach when his time comes,” Trask said of Johnson. “You know he's a natural leader and knows how to score points. He played against Alabama when he was at Utah, so he's played in big games in college and has proved that he can be a great coach at the highest level in college.”

Tight end Kyle Pitts and running back Nay’Quan Wright also vouched for Johnson, who is considered one of the best recruiters on Florida’s staff. He handles the Miami-Dade area and served as the primary recruiter for Wright in the 2019 class. 

“He’s a cool guy, a great coach,” Wright said of Johnson. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s good with all his players. He’s a players’ coach. We just feed off his energy. He comes out to practice fired up. 

“He’s been under Coach Mullen for a while … so I’m pretty sure he is going to take some traits from what Coach Mullen is doing and the programs that he has been in. He is also going to have some of his own little recipes to add some wrinkles that he thinks. But I think Coach Johnson will make a pretty huge head coach. I can see it in the years to come.”

Pitts echoed Wright’s comments about Johnson’s energy and players gravitating toward him. That bond extends beyond the football field. 

“I think he would be a great head coach because of the person he is off the field,” Pitts said of Johnson. “He has a great relationship with everybody. And when it’s time to lock in for business, he’s a teacher of the game because he knows so much. ... Everyone feeds off his energy. I feel like he would be a great leader to any team if he chooses to go that route.” 

Recognition surprises Pitts

Pitts was named a semifinalist for three national awards Monday, one of which caught him by surprise. 

Two of them were for the Maxwell Award (college football’s player of the year) and the John Mackey Award (most outstanding tight end). But the Biletnikoff Award, which recognizes the season’s most outstanding FBS receiver, was one designation that Pitts did not expect. 

“I would say the Biletnikoff really surprised me because I always knew it as a wide receiver award,” Pitts said. “When I did see that I was a semifinalist, I was like, ‘Oh, ok. Kind of interesting.’ Just knowing I’m in the group amongst the great pass catchers and some of the top guys in the whole nation is a great feeling.”

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Pitts has made his presence felt since returning from a concussion, snagging seven balls for 128 yards last Saturday at Tennessee after a 99-yard, three-touchdown performance against Kentucky in his first game back. He ranks fourth nationally in receiving touchdowns (11) and leads the country in yards per game (91.6) among tight ends. 

“Kyle’s a great player, he works extremely hard,” Johnson said of Pitts. “He’s super productive when he gets out there on the field. We all know what he can do and what he brings to the table. He’s done a great job of putting himself in a position to continue to go out there and perform at a really high level on a consistent basis, and when that happens, people take notice. I’m really proud of him.”

News & notes 

• The Florida football team reported no new COVID cases for the first week of December in the school’s weekly testing update Tuesday. UF administered 193 tests this past week on all student-athletes, including 148 on football players, and all of them came back negative. The No. 6 Gators haven’t had a positive case since the Nov. 17 update. 

• Offensive linemen Stone Forsythe and Brett Heggie, defensive tackle T.J. Slaton and safety Donovan Stiner have all accepted invites to the East-West Shrine Bowl. The Gators also will have a handful of players in the Reese’s Senior Bowl: Trask, wide receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney, linebacker Jeremiah Moon and safety Shawn Davis.