The Uncommon Coach Matt Johnson

Aztecs QB coach Matt Johnson at practice. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

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Matt Johnson helping SDSU’s QBs warm up. (Don De Mars/EVT)

On an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast, SDSU QB coach Matt Johnson mentioned podcaster David Goggins as someone he enjoyed. The quote below by Goggins expresses the type of person Johnson is.

“Be uncommon amongst uncommon people” – David Goggins.

He is a young coach who is loyal and driven. Johnson will tell it how it is and isn’t afraid to do things differently. There are 133 Division One football teams, meaning there are thousands of unique D1 coaches with their own style. Johnson is trying to be uncommon amongst uncommon people.

Matt Johnson “The Journey”

Johnson’s football career began in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he played at Bishop McDevitt High School. In college, he joined Bowling Green, led by OC Warren Ruggiero. Johnson said Ruggiero, now the OC at Wake Forest, is one of the biggest influences in his life and someone Johnson relies on to this day.

It was also at Bowling Green where Johnosn met SDSU head coach Sean Lewis. Lewis was the WRs coach before becoming the offensive coordinator and QB coach during Johnson’s senior year.

“Obviously, he’s a really good ball coach, really good at calling offensive plays, but he’s a better person,” Johnson said when describing Lewis. “If you’re going to hitch your wagon to somebody – in this profession, loyalty is a big deal – and with him and I, our relationship has been really good throughout the years. Just looking forward to keeping that trajectory high while we’re here at San Diego State.”

Sean Lewis and Matt Johnson at Bowling Green. (Credit: Bowling Green Athletics)

As a player, Johnson excelled in his final season for the Falcons under Lewis’ tutelage. He threw for 4,946 yards and 46 touchdowns. During his 2015 campaign, he ranked number one in many categories in the MAC, including passing yards and passing touchdowns. He also took home some hardware as he was voted 2015 MAC Offensive Player of the Year and won the Sammy Baugh trophy, given to the top QB in the nation. His impressive play was direct proof that Lewis’ offense could be a huge success.

Johnson described Lewis as a mentor, and his loyalty showed as he followed Lewis from team to team.

They first partnered as coaches at Syracuse in 2017 when Lewis hired Johnson as an offensive quality control analyst. When Lewis became head coach at Kent State the following year, Johnson joined him in the same role before being promoted to RB coach after two years. The two were apart for the 2023 season, with Johnson taking over as Kent State’s offensive coordinator after Lewis left to join the staff at Colorado.

Now, the pair have rejoined forces on The Mesa, where Johnson’s loyalty and faith in Lewis have shown once again. He gave up being a coordinator to lead the QBs at SDSU.

“The biggest one is Lew,” Johnson replied when asked about his coaching influences. “Playing for him and coaching for him, it’s been really cool the development we’ve had since I was playing for him and where this offense has gone. His philosophy in quarterback play and offensive play, we were essentially on ground zero when I was playing for him and now, this thing is at a whole new level. It’s been cool to see it grow.”

In addition to Lewis, Johnson mentioned former Syracuse head coach and current Arizona offensive coordinator Dino Babers as someone who has made a lasting impact.

“Those two guys do a good job of explaining the why,” Johnson said, “And things make a lot more sense when they make a complex game very simple.”

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Matt Johnson’s Coaching Philosophy

The former quarterback’s aim as a leader of young men is to help his players achieve success beyond what they can by themselves. Key to that process is developing relationships so those he leads can receive the frank feedback Johnson provides.

“I’m a relationship coach,” Johnson said. “Some people say I’m a players coach, whatever that means. To me, we’re dealing with 18 to 23-year-old kids. They don’t necessarily want to be told what to do, they want to know that you’re going to take them from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and excel their career. The term coach you go back to stagecoach. That was a vehicle that transported person ‘A’ from one point to another. So, it’s my job as your coach to help you get to a place you can’t to on your own.”

Johnson believes trust and honesty, developed through a consistent relationship, can give successful QBs at SDSU something to consider when the inevitable NIL opportunities arise at other institutions. He sees himself as a support for the athletes in his room. Johnson provides his QBs maximum flexibility to get their work done. Johnson makes himself available morning, noon, and night to fit his tutelage into the schedules of his players.

Credit (SDSU Athletics)

“Letting them know I am always going to be there for them,” Johnson explained. “It doesn’t matter that it’s 7:30 (pm) and you just got out of class, and it’s the only time you can watch film. Okay, I’ll make it work. My alarm goes off at 4:15 (am), and if a guy said he needed to meet at 6 am before lifts because that’s the only time that he could do it, ‘Okay, sounds good.’ Letting them know that I’m always going to be there for them and I have their best interests in mind.”

The Aztecs have four quarterbacks competing for the starting job. Kyle Crum and Javance Tupou’ata-Johnson were with the Red and Black last season. Florida State transfer AJ Duffy and Danny O’Neil, who de-committed from Colorado to play at SDSU, are the newcomers. Given how important they are to the success of the Aztecs, having someone Lewis coached directly leading the QBs has tremendous benefits.

“We speak the same language,” Lewis said when asked about Johnson after practice on March 28. “We have shared experiences. He’s lived it for those guys. There’s proof in the pudding where when he’s talking about it to them, it’s not just from a conceptual standpoint; it’s, ‘Hey, I’ve lived it. I’ve done it. … There’s a deep level of trust between me and coach Johnson because of our shared experiences. The guys can look to his experience between the white lines and what he’s done, he has immediate credibility and great value in that room with those guys”

Johnson has the coaching philosophy to thrive in this new era of college football, where coaches tell players what they want to hear just to get them to commit to their programs. Johnson adds a level of personal touch and isn’t afraid to tell the players the truth because he has been in their shoes before and cares about his guys.

What drives him, he said, is not the production his QBs have but the continual growth his players display. He pointed to former Kent State QB Dustin Crum as a great example. Crum could not make the necessary throws in Lewis’ first year but kept improving. By year two, Crum grew into the starter and led KSU in passing (2,262 yards), rushing (707), and touchdowns (26) as the team won the first bowl game in program history.

Johnson believes that level of success is in the near future for at least one of the QBs presently at SDSU and down the road for whoever is willing to match the high expectations for the group.

“To make a very difficult answer short, ‘everything,’” Johnson said when asked what a QB in SDSU’s Aztec Fast offense does. “We’ve got a phrase and saying, ‘You’ve got the keys to the Cadillac, and it’s your job to bring it back without any scratches.’ On any given play, the ball could go to four different people. He could keep it on a run play. He could throw perimeter game. They have a ton of options. But, within those options, because there’s a ton of them, there’s a lot of rules. They’ve got to be able to apply those options and use them in the proper situations. It’s a very quarterback-friendly system.”

Coach Johnson adds a new level of understanding for his quarterbacks, due to his past experiences in Lewis’ offense, that few could duplicate. His experience, ambition, honesty, passion, loyalty, and work ethic truly make him uncommon amongst other uncommon coaches.

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