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Could Nate Johnson be utilized more going forward?

The redshirt freshman quarterback showed off his blazing speed on a 59-yard TD run against Arizona State. Could he be utilized more against Washington?

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Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson runs the ball for a touchdown

Utah quarterback Nate Johnson runs a touchdown against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

After Bryson Barnes threw a touchdown pass to tight end Landen King to put Utah up 41-3 over Arizona State with 12:59 remaining in the game, coach Kyle Whittingham decided Barnes’ day was over.

“I just saw the little gap exchange their defense ran, pulled it. All I had to do was make that backer miss, made him miss, and then once it was green grass, it was green grass.” — Utah backup QB Nate Johnson on his TD run against ASU

As Barnes put on a headset for the rest of the contest, and Utah’s defense forced another Arizona State three-and-out, Nate Johnson was warming up to make his first game appearance since a Sept. 29 loss at Oregon State.

The redshirt freshman entered the game to applause from the Utah faithful and handed the ball off to running back Charlie Vincent for a one-yard gain. With Utah leading by 38 points in the fourth quarter, the plan on Johnson’s second play from scrimmage was to hand it off again on second-and-9 from the Utah 41-yard-line for another inside run.

But instinct took over.

“To be honest, that play was really not, I was really not supposed to pull that ball,” Johnson said.

Johnson pulled the handoff, kept it himself and had one player to beat — defensive back Chris Edmonds. Johnson made him miss, and saw nothing but daylight in front of him. Crossing the 50-yard line, Johnson turned on the afterburners, showing off his speed as he raced to the end zone.

“I just saw the little gap exchange their defense ran, pulled it. All I had to do was make that backer miss, made him miss, and then once it was green grass, it was green grass,” Johnson said.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Johnson, and that 59-yard touchdown felt really good.

“When I saw daylight, I’ve been waiting all year for that. But again, it’s a great team win. I couldn’t have done it without my linemen blocking downfield, receivers as well,” Johnson said.

It’s truly been a roller coaster ride of a season for Johnson, who lost out to Barnes in the backup quarterback battle at the beginning of the season, but saw playing time in the home opener against Florida, where he played 19 snaps, going 3 for 4 passing and running the ball six times for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Barnes got the start again vs. Baylor, but struggled in Waco, Texas, going 6 of 19 for 71 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Johnson was in on some plays at quarterback, including a 22-yard pass in the first half, but Barnes had the majority of the QB reps. Johnson was featured mostly in designed runs, which Baylor was all over.

With 10 minutes left in that game, Barnes was benched and Johnson entered the game, leading two touchdown drives and scoring a rushing touchdown as the Utes beat Baylor 20-13. Johnson finished the game 6 of 7 passing for 82 yards and added 32 yards and a score on the ground.

After that performance, Johnson was handed the reins for Utah’s next three contests. The Utes won their next two — beating Weber State 31-7 and UCLA 14-7 — but the offense was uninspiring.

Johnson was 13 of 21 for 193 yards and a touchdown through the air against the Wildcats, adding 71 yards and a score on the ground, but Utah was only able to muster up a touchdown against UCLA. Johnson found King for a 3-yard score to help win the game for Utah, but his completion percentage dropped to 52.9% for 117 yards and only two rushing yards on 14 attempts against the Bruins.

By the time Oregon State beat Utah 21-7, the offense had hit a low point. Utah’s offense was held to 198 yards and Johnson was pulled early in the third quarter with a stat line of 3 of 11 for 35 yards, but would return to the game after Barnes was hit hard and sent to the hospital with what would later turn out to be bruised ribs. Johnson reentered the game in the fourth quarter, finishing 8 of 23 for 101 yards and a touchdown and three rushing yards.

Utah’s offensive woes were certainly not all on the freshman quarterback. Everyone, from the offensive line to running backs to receivers, was not playing well. Johnson was also put at the disadvantage of splitting first-team reps with Cam Rising during the week at practice, and never had full access to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s playbook.

Still, Utah felt a change was needed at quarterback.

Since Utah returned from the bye week that followed the Oregon State loss, it’s been Barnes again at quarterback, who has gone 3-1 since. After Barnes’ performance since the bye, he’s the right choice at quarterback to finish out the season.

Barnes helped revive an anemic offense in a 34-14 win over Cal and didn’t have a standout game, but was efficient, completing 71.4% of his passes and throwing for 128 yards.

“We hadn’t been moving the ball much the last couple games,” Whittingham said after the win over Cal. “Just thought (Barnes) gave us the best chance to win this week and that’s really what it always boils down to is which guy ... gives you the best chance to win the game. That’s the final analysis there.”

Barnes’ breakout game came in the win over USC, throwing for 235 yards, three touchdowns and a pick-six and adding 57 yards and a score rushing, including the key 26-yard run on the last-minute game-winning drive. He also threw four touchdowns in the rout of Arizona State.

It hasn’t been all sunshine, though. Barnes threw two interceptions and only completed 51.7% of his passes in a 35-6 blowout loss at home to Oregon, but the offense has seen improvement since he returned. He’s certainly been aided by advancements in the run game and offensive line that have helped open up the pass game, but also deserves a lot of credit for getting the offense going again.

But why did the Johnson plays go away completely? There’s a number of factors.

Johnson has remained the backup to Barnes, but before last Saturday’s game, hadn’t seen the field in the last three games.

“Keep working, stay focused, just keep locked in,” Johnson said of his mentality. “I mean, the season’s been up and down, but I’ve stayed locked in, stayed focused with the plays, with the film, and whenever coach called my number in that game, went in there and ran the offense. Just got to again, just stay locked in, stay focused, and let’s go. Got to go take care of Washington this week. Got to go 1-0.”

“Keep working, stay focused, just keep locked in. I mean, the season’s been up and down, but I’ve stayed locked in, stayed focused with the plays, with the film, and whenever coach called my number in that game, went in there and ran the offense.” — Nate Johnson

A lot of Johnson’s on-field absence has to do with two-way player Sione Vaki, who was a revelation against Cal and USC as running back depth dwindled, combining for 387 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns at receiver and running back. With Vaki’s emergence, special packages for Johnson became nonexistent.

“I’m not saying that the Nate package will disappear, but it will be minimal as long as Sione Vaki’s available to us,” Ludwig said Oct. 16, the last time he was made available to media.

Vaki was feeling under the weather against Oregon, and was scouted well by the Ducks, which yelled out “hot boy, hot boy,” whenever he was on the field to alert defenders. Vaki had only five touches for 11 yards in the loss against Oregon, and wasn’t needed on offense against Arizona State. Whittingham said Monday that Vaki will continue to have a role in the offense — a 70/30 split in terms of defense/offense at the maximum.

There also may be the consideration of wanting to keep your backup quarterback healthy, and that ball security has been a bit of an issue for Johnson, who has put the ball on the ground four times this season, but only has lost one of them.

But watching Johnson’s electric speed on Saturday — he says he runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash — it’s easy to imagine plays for him in the offense, especially if Utah is thin at running back. Whittingham said lead back Ja’Quinden Jackson’s availability this Saturday is a “question mark,” but if history is any indication, Jackson will give it his best effort against Washington.

Utah will need to pull out all of the stops on the road against the No. 5 Huskies, who are scoring 41.7 points per game this season.

Utah-Washington TV

Utes on the air

No. 18 Utah (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12)
at No. 5 Washington (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MST
Husky Stadium
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Could that game plan include Johnson?

“We’re going to do whatever we can do to supplement the offense as best we can. Nate has been a part of it in some games this year as has Vaki, and so we’re going to try to fashion a plan that gives us the best chance to win and if it includes those guys then that’s what we’ll do. But can’t give away any secrets,” Whittingham said.

Whether he’s a part of the game plan or not this week, Johnson still has to prepare as the backup quarterback, but if his number gets called elsewhere on offense, he’s going to be ready.

“I know coach Ludwig is going to come up with a great game plan, especially since we’re playing the No. 5 team in the country. And coach Ludwig has an excellent game plan every single week, so whatever game plan he comes up with this week, and if I’m in it, I’m in it. If not, again, I’m still one play away (as backup quarterback), so we got to just keep studying film, stay locked in and stay focused.”


Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson sits on the bench at the end of the game with Oregon Ducks in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. As Utah’s QB2, Johnson has to stay sharp and focused should needs arise.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News