March 28, 2014 1:03:44 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Brian Johnson's first act as Mississippi State's new quarterbacks coach was to humble his star pupil.
In the first drill of the first spring practice last week, Johnson introduced Pete Maravich ball handling drills that would be more familiar to basketball players. All the MSU quarterbacks, including the Southeastern Conference's most experienced returnee at the position Dak Prescott, struggled with the figure-eight and spider drills with a football.
"Nobody handles the ball more than the quarterback and I believe strongly we as quarterbacks are ball handlers," Johnson said. "It was nice to see him and the other guys realize why we're doing this because they're going to catch snaps and throw the ball from all different angles."
Prescott, who was not a multi-sport athlete in high school, dropped the football several times and was not comfortable holding the football expect in the natural throwing motion. He has since gotten much more proficient at the drill and hopes his improvement will limit any fumbles during a 2014 season where he'll take a majority of snaps.
"I had to learn very quickly that he's all about fundamentals and he's certainly a guy that has hollered at me constantly to work on the simple things," Prescott said.
Disregarding a drill designed to show his current limitations, Johnson's most important job this offseason was to make a distant impression on Prescott as his new protegee for the next couple of seasons.
"It's a constant battle for him to get better in each and every aspect of his life," Johnson said Tuesday. "When we're on the field, it's about constantly being detail oriented in footwork and mechanics no matter the expectations."
Johnson, who just turned 27, was hired last month to fill the MSU coaching staff vacancy left when Les Koenning left Starkville to become the new wide receivers coach at Texas on Jan. 15. Johnson served as the Utes offensive coordinator at his alma mater last season but left to reunite with MSU head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited Johnson to Utah and coached him in his final season with the Utes.
Johnson finished his playing career in 2008 when he became the winningest quarterback in school history with 26 victories capped off by a dominating 336-yard performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach in charge of quarterbacks at Utah, including one as offensive coordinator and one as co-offensive coordinator.
"I think the relationship that you carry with your position coach is one that lasts a lifetime," said Johnson. "When we go into a kid's home and recruit that kid, we essentially become an extension of their family. That's something that has been extremely important to me throughout my coaching career, and even in my playing career."
Mullen joked after the first practice that the dynamic of the relationship between him and Johnson hasn't changed since his playing days at Utah.
"It's not the last time I'll ever yell at Brian," Mullen said. "I think it means I'm getting old because it seems like I should be still coaching him somehow but now he's coaching the position here."
Mullen spent a lot of practice time personally with the quarterbacks in the first week especially during 7-on-7 drills. The former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Utah and Florida was working on the individual footwork and balance with both backup options Damian Williams and Nick Fitzgerald after single repetitions. This dynamic with Mullen left Johnson to focus on the star pupil in Prescott and get him comfortable with his receivers and the offense for the 2014 season. The benefit for Johnson is terms of charisma and personality, Prescott showed his ability to lead this Bulldogs program when he took over the starting job from Tyler Russell deep into last season.
"Dak has all those qualities you look for when you go out to recruit a player," Johnson said. "People are naturally drawn to him and want to succeed with him. As a coach, when you have that attitude, it's fantastic to come to work and be around him."
After leading the team in passing yards (1940), rushing yards (829) and total touchdowns (23) last season, Prescott cracked a smile when he was asked if he feels 2014 could be his breakout season.
"It's just always come naturally to me to be charismatic and know how to handle being a leader," Prescott said. "Basically all of how I'll be judged in this program is how my teammates push themselves to get the most out of themselves."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.