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‘The lights are not too bright’: What does the future look like for dual-threat QB Nate Johnson?

Dynamic athlete is one of “three or four” players who may burn redshirt year during the final games of the season

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Utah Utes running back Nate Johnson (wearing red) takes the ball into the end zone

Utah backup quarterback Nate Johnson scores during a game against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Since arriving on campus in May, Utah true freshman quarterback Nate Johnson can say only one negative thing about his experience so far. 

The weather.

The Clovis, California, native is not accustomed to living in sub-freezing temperatures. 

“The only thing I’m not liking is, it gets cold. It’s really cold up here,” he said. “It gets in the 20s and having to start the car every day when it’s 20 (degrees) and it’s cold, it’s not fun. But I signed up for it.”

Johnson has served as scout team quarterback this season for the Utes. Against Arizona, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig sent Johnson into the game for his first taste of college football.

The 6-foot, 191-pound product of Clovis High promptly ran for a touchdown on his first play. Later, he ran for another TD.

What a debut — and perhaps a glimpse into the future.

Johnson became the first Utah true freshman QB to rush for a touchdown since Tyler Huntley in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl against Indiana. And he became the first since at least 1996 to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game. 

“It was exciting. I was on the sideline, just waiting for that time,” Johnson remembered about his first game. “I stayed ready and once they called my number, I had to make those reps count. Once I stepped on the field, I was relaxed and focused. (Quarterback) Cam (Rising) told me to relax and have fun out there.”

Johnson has now played in three games. If he plays in a fourth he’ll burn his redshirt. 

Will he play in the Utes’ final regular-season game Saturday (2 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) at Colorado? Or will he preserve his redshirt? 

“I don’t know for sure. That’s up to coach (Kyle Whittingham) and coach Lud,” Johnson said Monday. “Whatever game plan they come up with this week, it is what it is.”

According to Whittingham, there are “three or four players” that could possibly burn their redshirt in the final games of the season. He added that he’s had conversations about this with those players. 

Of course, Whittingham isn’t tipping his hand. 

“We’ll do whatever we need to to win this game (against Colorado),” he said. “If we need to use those guys, we will.”

AP22317243998248.jpg

Utah tight end Logan Kendall, right, celebrates with Nate Johnson after a touchdown against Stanford Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Whittingham has been impressed with what he’s seen from Johnson this season. 

“It’s a big benefit to see that the stage is not too big for him, the lights are not too bright. He has a lot of poise and confidence. He executed his plays exactly how we envisioned,” he said. “You’ve got a taste of his speed. That guy is lightning-quick. He could probably be a running back if that was his desire. He doesn’t have any interest in that and that’s not our plan. He runs the football like a running back.”

Rising has enjoyed working with Johnson.

“Great growth and he continues to learn and absorb. He’s like a sponge when it comes to information,” he said. “It’s exciting to see and I know he’s going to have a bright future.”

Johnson is grateful for the help Rising and other teammates have provided him since he arrived on campus. 

“With Cam being here for four years, just watching him take reps, learning from his experiences in the game, seeing what he does in the film room and on the field during practice, walking through everything he does, I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “He’s showed me a few things. I’m learning from the best.

“I’m learning from Cam and Bryson Barnes as well, whether it’s coverages, fronts or plays. Learning from both of them has really boosted my confidence a lot. Right now, Cam is QB1. Don’t know what could happen in the future.”

How does Johnson view his future?

“Not really sure about that,” Johnson said. “I’m really focused on this week and taking care of business this week. Not focused on the future. I’m focused on taking care of business this week.” 

Johnson reiterated that he’s enjoyed his time at Utah. 

“It’s been really awesome. Ever since I stepped foot here in May, til now, in those months I’ve pretty much learned a lot from all of the veterans — the receivers, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the O-linemen and the (defensive backs),” he said. “I’ve really learned a lot from those guys.”

Other than the cold weather, Johnson can’t complain about his experience with the Utes.

“So far, so good,” he said. 


Utes on the air

No. 14 Utah (8-3, 6-2)

at Colorado (1-7, 1-10)

Saturday, 2 p.m. MST

Folsom Field 

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: ESPN 700