Utah’s coaching staff, and players, understand the importance of having a dependable, quality backup quarterback.

The Utes had to play without injured starter Cam Rising at Washington State last October when backup Bryson Barnes stepped in and led Utah to victory. 

“It’s a big opportunity. Not just for me but for everyone on both sides of the ball. You’ve got to execute day-in and day-out.” — backup QB Nate Johnson

During last January’s Rose Bowl, Rising was knocked out of the game but Barnes couldn’t rally the Utes in a loss to the Nittany Lions

Injuries happen. QB2 needs to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

During spring ball, Rising is not available as he recovers from a knee injury. Utah is optimistic that he’ll be available for the season opener against Florida on Aug. 31. 

But if he’s not able to play, who would start? 

One of the primary objectives for the coaching staff during spring practices is identifying Rising’s backup. 

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has plenty to work with and he loves the depth at the QB position. 

“There’s a lot of raw talent in the room. I’m super excited getting that first practice under our belt. You’re rolling out three freshmen quarterbacks,” he said. “Some with no experience. Nate has a couple of snaps under his belt. But they handled the install very well. It’s a very high football intellect group. They have a varied skill set in the room. It’s going to be a matter of what we’re doing, Xs and Os-wise, with their skill set — like it is every year.”

While the coaches know what Barnes can do, they are eager to learn more about freshmen Nate Johnson and Brandon Rose, who were both part of the program in 2022.  

The battle between Johnson and Rose is on center stage, as they will receive the majority of the reps during the spring. 

“Not to discount Bryson Barnes, but he’s a known commodity. Other than Cam Rising, nobody knows the offense better than Bryson Barnes,” Ludwig said. “He knows that. He appreciates that we’ve got to evaluate what we have in these young players and get them exposure to the offensive system and evaluate their talent and skill set.”

“I’m excited to see the development of the room. I’ve got two great guys that are relatively new with Nate and (Rose),” Barnes said. “Even Luke (Bottari) and Mack (Howard) — everybody’s going to get their fair share of reps and I’m excited to see the development of the QB room.”

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Johnson knows what’s at stake this spring.

“It’s a big opportunity,” he said. “Not just for me but for everyone on both sides of the ball. You’ve got to execute day in and day out.”

What does Johnson need to do to separate himself from the other quarterbacks?

“Really, just execution. On offense, you have to execute our plays and execute on and off the field,” he said. “We’ve got to execute plays. If stuff goes wrong, you have to shake it off and go on to the next play. You have to fly around and make plays.”

As a redshirt freshman, Johnson was showcased in a few packages last season — with outstanding results. Johnson scored on a couple of touchdown runs out of the wildcat. 

Last season, the speedy Johnson served as the No. 3 quarterback.

Ludwig said regardless of how things shake out during spring ball in terms of the depth chart, Johnson won’t change positions. 

“He will be a quarterback. But could you see more of that (wildcat) package? Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “We’re not going to dive real heavy into that stuff in the spring because we want to see what he can do mastering the base offense, knowing that stuff is available to us.

“That is game-plan driven. We want to see him operate the core, day-to-day offensive structure, knowing that the creativity and the game-plan stuff is available to him. He’s got a real unique skill set at the quarterback position.”

Rose, also a redshirt freshman, was a three-star pro-style QB out of Murrieta Valley High, where he passed for 7,521 yards and 74 touchdowns. He played on the scout team a year ago, lining up against Utah’s No. 1 defense on a regular basis. 

“You get a lot more throws (on the scout team),” Ludwig said. “Nate Johnson was the third quarterback for us. The third quarterback is the most difficult position on the football team because you’re expected to know everything. But you get almost zero reps. At least Brandon was able to play the game. Nate was getting his reps in individual and routes versus air. Brandon Rose was going up against the best defense in the Pac-12 every day. That’s a great learning curve, great experience. That showed up (on the first day of spring ball) for him.”

How does Ludwig describe Rose’s strengths? 

“He’s an athletic, drop-back passer. His arm talent is off-the-chart,” he said. “I’m super excited about that. When he gets under duress, for a bigger-body guy, he has excellent escapability and really deceptive speed.”

Wide receiver Devaughn Vele said Rose has benefited from quarterbacking the scout team. 

“He has a lot of confidence, coming from a guy that was on the scout team. You get a lot of good looks against the (first team) defense every day, especially during the season,” he said. “He has that little swagger coming with him, knowing that he went against this defense every day and he can put on display what he can do in the spring.”

Johnson said his relationship with Rose “is really good. All of our relationships are good, learning from Cam and from Bryson. We’re learning from coach Lud as well. Our relationship is strong and we made plays (Tuesday).”

Barnes is looking forward to helping the younger quarterbacks learn and improve. 

“I’m watching what they’re doing and seeing the mistakes I made when I was in that stage. I give them a few pointers here and there,” he said. “The offense, it’s a lot when you first get here. If you go guns blazing, you give them all that information and a lot of it’s going to go over their heads. It’s just refining little details and further their development along the way.”

Ludwig said Utah’s offense is “all quarterback-driven. It’s all about the nuts-and-bolts. We put a lot on the quarterback’s plate. We have to make sure the quarterback can execute the core of the offense and these young guys have a lot to learn.”

Of course, the Utes are counting on Rising being the starting quarterback next fall. But during the spring, they have a chance to give a lot of work to the young QBs and find a reliable backup. 

“We’re going to put the next best quarterback in a position to be No. 2 and the third best guy in position to be No. 3,” Ludwig said. “But it’s a day-in, day-out process. May the best man win. I’m anxious to watch it continue. It was off to a good start but every day is different.”

Bryson Barnes passes the ball
White team quarterback Bryson Barnes passes the ball during the University of Utah’s Red and White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 23, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News