As expected, Whittingham played things close to the vest, saying that he would have “no elaboration” on the depth chart in regard to questions about the status of quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe, both of whom suffered torn ACLs last season.
“No matter what happens, you’ll see Nate Johnson in this game.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
Asked if he knows who is going to start at quarterback but wasn’t going to announce it publicly, Whittingham said, “I don’t know if we’re positive right now ... I can tell you that.”
Monday evening, Rising said he’s feeling “pretty damn good right now.”
Utah fans have been asking Rising if he’s playing vs. Florida when they see him around town, and he’s ready to put an end to that question on Thursday — one way or another.
“Yeah, enough times,” Rising said with a laugh about if fans have asked him his status. “...I’m about done. We’ll find out on Thursday.”
Despite Bryson Barnes being listed as the No. 2 quarterback on Utah’s depth chart, released Friday, and Nate Johnson not listed as an “OR” or “AND” along with Barnes at the No. 2 spot, Whittingham said the competition is still close.
“Very close. It still is. ... Nate has really closed the gap. You got to weigh everything,” Whittingham said.
On one hand, Barnes has more experience, appearing in the 2022 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, where he threw a game-tying touchdown after taking over at QB with 4:14 left in the game. He also started a game on the road against Washington State on short notice in 2022 — Barnes didn’t take starting reps before that game — and was 17 for 27, throwing for 175 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in a Utah win.
If called upon to start on Thursday, he’d have more time to prepare.
“I don’t think it’d be that dramatic and that much of a time crunch, but he doesn’t know right now because we don’t know. But we’re still three days out as I mentioned, but that’s a lot different than being 30 minutes out,” Whittingham said.
In the 2023 Rose Bowl, Barnes took over in the third quarter after Rising’s injury, passing for 175 yards, a touchdown and an interception with a 53% completion rate in Utah’s loss to Penn State.
The Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State and the Washington State win were highlighted by Whittingham.
But Johnson brings more athleticism to the position and poses a bigger running threat. The redshirt freshman played in four games in 2022, mostly in designed running packages. He had five rushes for 51 yards and two touchdowns. His only pass attempt of the season was a 16-yard touchdown to Logan Kendall against Stanford.
Johnson has had limited reps in practice, Whittingham said.
“Nate has done well in the limited reps that he’s got, but it hasn’t been extensive so there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say guesswork, but we’ve got to project,” he said.
One thing is for sure, Johnson will see the field Thursday. Whether that is as a true quarterback, if Rising is unable to play, or in designed special packages remains to be seen.
“No matter what happens, you’ll see Nate Johnson in this game,” Whittingham said.
Rising, who’s seen both QBs in practice, praised Johnson and Barnes.
“They’ve been doing a great job. I think (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) has been putting them in positions to make them successful and just do everything that they possibly can to help the team go in the right direction,” Rising said.
The offensive game plan will change “fairly significantly” depending on who starts under center.
“Nate is obviously a tremendous athlete. We’ve talked about his speed and what he brings to the table running the football, whereas Bryson is more in the pocket and would rather operate from there,” Whittingham said.
Of course, the best-case scenario is that Rising plays.
“If Cam’s available, he’s a guy that can make the yards and extend when he needs to with his legs and throw the ball exceptionally well,” Whittingham said.