Iowa Football

Jay Johnson: From Northern Iowa QB to Michigan State offensive coordinator

He went to a Hawkeyes football camp as a prep, now he comes to Kinnick as a coach

Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson
Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson

Michigan State football offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is a lot more than an answer to a trivia question.

Which is, by the way, who was the Northern Iowa quarterback who kept Kurt Warner on the sideline until Warner’s senior season?

That was Johnson, who was the first-team quarterback at UNI from 1990 to 1992 for two reasons. One, he was very good, passing for 8,341 yards and 60 touchdowns in his career. Two, the Panthers won. They were 31-8 and claimed three Gateway Conference titles with Johnson starting.

Warner started in ‘93 as a senior with Johnson graduated, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 24 years later.

“We’ve talked quite a bit,” Johnson said this week from East Lansing, Mich., where he is trying to devise a game plan for Michigan State’s game at Iowa Saturday. “We talked quite a bit of ball this summer during this COVID time. It’s great to get his insight.”

Johnson has quite a football journey of his own. Since leaving UNI, he has been a college coach at Augsburg, Truman State, Kansas, Southern Mississippi, Louisville, Central Michigan, Louisiana, Minnesota and, most recently, Colorado.

You can throw in two years as a quality control staffer at Georgia, where he first worked on the same staff with current MSU head coach Mel Tucker. He was Tucker’s offensive coordinator at Colorado last year.

“I’ve been all over the place,” said Johnson. “It’s been great. All the different stops, it always was really good for us. It’s all been really positive.”

Johnson and the other Spartan coaches didn’t have the benefit of a full spring practice season to get to work with their new players.

“It was such a unique time,” said Johnson. “It was Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. In a certain sense, we probably were able to dig into things a lot deeper than had we not been in that situation.”

He quickly learned MSU junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who lived in Cedar Rapids for several years and played high school ball at West Des Moines Valley, knew football. His father, Tony Lombardi, was the head football coach at Cedar Rapids Washington for seven years.

“Rocky’s been in football for a long time,” Johnson said. “You can see those things, the leadership skills, the really good football IQ. He’s really done a nice job physically, too. He’s a big, athletic kid who’s really been throwing it well.”

Lombardi is tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes with six through two games, and is second in passing yards with 642 and third in passing efficiency. He completed five passes of 30-plus yards last Saturday in the Spartans’ 27-24 upset win at Michigan as Johnson had his QB throw over the top of the Wolverines’ defense 13 times.

Now Johnson will see if he can come up wrinkles that can stymie the Hawkeyes. He grew up in Lakeville, Minn. He said Big Ten football in general and coaching in Kinnick Stadium mean a lot to him.

“I remember going to Iowa for a football camp,” he said. “Coach (Hayden) Fry was there, Coach (Bill) Snyder, Coach (Dan) McCarney, and Coach (Kirk) Ferentz was the O-line coach. It was really quite remarkable, looking back on it.

“It’s a pretty neat opportunity to play these guys at their place.”

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