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A four-star quarterback recruit, Johnson saw playing time last season, but mostly on designed running packages — he rushed five times for 51 yards and two touchdowns and threw a 16-yard TD pass.
“Cam and Bryson just told me, go out there, be a leader, take those guys home, lead the team, be poised, be calm, and go out there and go get us that win.” — Utah QB Nate Johnson
When Rising went down with an ACL injury in the 2023 Rose Bowl, it was Barnes, not Johnson, who got the nod. Ditto in the 2022 Washington State game, when Rising was ruled out minutes before the contest.
Against Florida in the 2023 season opener, Johnson was called upon — playing nearly complete drives during the game — but mostly in a running role, rushing six times for 45 yards and passing the ball four times.
Barnes was the primary quarterback in the Florida game, and that trend continued against Baylor. Johnson had snaps, including a 22-yard pass, but the majority of his plays were designed runs that the Bears snuffed out.
But in the early fourth quarter, as Barnes was 6 for 19 with no touchdowns and an interception, Johnson got the opportunity he had been waiting for since he committed to Utah.
Ten minutes left, Utah down by seven on the road in the sweltering Texas heat.
On this drive, Johnson wouldn’t have to glance at the sideline to see if Barnes was going to be subbed in. For the first time in his collegiate career, he was fully given the reins for virtually an entire quarter.
“Cam and Bryson just told me, go out there, be a leader, take those guys home, lead the team, be poised, be calm, and go out there and go get us that win,” Johnson said.
The redshirt freshman engineered an eight-minute, 15-play, 88-yard drive to tie the game with two minutes remaining.
“It was a gutsy drive, but we were blessed to go down there and get the game-tying drive,” Johnson said.
Johnson had a couple key runs on the drive, including the game-tying touchdown run up the gut, but he also kept the chains moving with his arm.
He was calm, cool and collected, freshman wide receiver Mikey Matthews said.
“He always makes plays, so Nate’s going to do it for you — make plays, make touchdowns,” Matthews said.
Matthews was Johnson’s favorite target on the drive. The slot receiver caught three passes on the series, including gains of 18 and 17 yards.
“Having a guy like him in the slot, putting along those types of routes, getting him an open field, getting him matched up with linebackers, it is good having a player out there like him,” Johnson said.
After Cole Bishop’s crucial interception on Baylor’s ensuing drive set Johnson and the Utes offense up on the Bears’ 29-yard line, Johnson didn’t have to do much as Utah kept it on the ground with its running backs until Jaylon Glover scored the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left.
Johnson was 6 for 7 for 82 yards through the air and added 32 yards and a score on the ground.
“We didn’t fly all the way to Texas to come down and to lose, so we just picked that energy up in the fourth quarter,” Johnson said.
On Monday, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed what the team knew after the game — Johnson will be Utah’s backup to Rising going forward, and if Rising continues to miss time, Johnson will be the starting quarterback.
“I’d say based on the whole body of work that we’ve seen, Nate deserves the chance to be and he’d be the starter if Cam’s not available,” Whittingham said.
Getting thrown into a game as the primary signal-caller in the fourth quarter, down a touchdown on the road isn’t the most calming of circumstances, but Johnson prepared every day in practice for a situation like this.
“You never know when your number’s going to be called, so you always got to be ready,” Johnson said,
So when he was tasked with leading the Utes to a comeback road win, he was ready.
“Just leading those guys to victory. Especially being a quarterback, everyone’s looking up to you. Everyone’s looking at you as the leader. ... We all take pride in leadership,” Johnson said.
Ranked the No. 16 quarterback in the 2022 class by 247Sports, Johnson is one of the highest-rated quarterback recruits ever signed by Utah. He threw for 1,672 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Clovis High in California, and had 812 rushing yards and eight scores.
A track star at Clovis, Johnson won the section championship in the 100-meter dash. His speed and ability running the football has never been in question from the time he stepped foot in Salt Lake City.
In his first extensive look throwing the football at the Power Five level, Johnson looked good. He made quick decisions, got the ball out fast, and was accurate, throwing a good ball.
Utes on the air
No. 12 Utah (2-0)
vs. Weber State (2-0)
Saturday, noon MDT
Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM
Utah’s offense looked snappier, and Johnson was able to run the hurry-up offense well.
“He’s still a work in progress in that regard and there’ll still be some growing pains in that regard, but he’s really improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last year,” Whittingham said about Johnson’s passing.
Whether Rising returns for Saturday’s game against Weber State (noon MDT, Pac-12 Networks) or not, Johnson figures to get plenty of playing time against the Wildcats.
It’s another opportunity to get more game experience under his belt and continue to hone his skills.
He’s not taking the opportunity for granted.
“It’s a blessing. Just being here, working every day. Been here two years, just working every day to just have the opportunity. You never know when your number is going to get called and then Coach Whitt and Coach Lud, they called my number and it was a true blessing. It was really a true blessing,” Johnson said.