In his first season since switching from offense to defense, Tao Johnson showcased his versatility.

Johnson started 12 games at nickelback for Utah in 2023, playing in all 13 of the Utes’ contests, and spent the majority of his time at that position.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah saw potential in Johnson playing the safety position — free safety specifically.

Back in September, Whittingham said free safety was Johnson’s natural position. With two potential NFL draft picks at safety in Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki, however, a more permanent move to the position was going to have to wait until 2024.

In the meantime, Johnson had a good season at nickel in 2023 — especially for it being his first since moving to that side of the ball — totaling 33 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and five pass deflections — the second-highest on Utah’s defense.

“Just a lot of work,” Johnson said about switching to defense. “Working with Coach Scalley, Coach (graduate assistant coach Jordan) Fogal, Coach Shah. Putting a lot of extra work, learning how to play football from the other side of the football.”

While Johnson’s primary responsibility in 2023 was that nickel position, there were times when Utah used him extensively at free safety — 66 snaps against UCLA and 38 in the Las Vegas Bowl vs. Northwestern. In total, Johnson played 143 of his 598 snaps in 2023 at free safety.

Free safety is a demanding position, and it requires not just the physical skillset — Johnson has that handled at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds — but also the mental side.

“Safeties and linebackers, hands down, are the smartest players on the field, so you’re going to have to grasp now just not your position, but the entire defense — where you fit in the run game, how that’s going to have to be complimented in the pass game, so it requires just an absolute immersion with regard to understanding the defense,” Shah said.

Johnson’s unique path to get to the free safety position has prepared him for this moment. He starred as a quarterback for Thunder Ridge High out of Idaho Falls, Idaho, while also playing cornerback, then was recruited by Utah as a wide receiver.

After appearing in five games in his freshman season at wide receiver and on special teams, Johnson made the move to defense.

“He was doing a good job there (at wide receiver), but as you watch people move and just how they operate, you just kind of have a gut feeling that hey, this guy probably will have a higher ceiling at a different spot, and that’s exactly is what I thought with Tao,” Whittingham said in September.

Johnson was needed at nickel, which was one of Utah’s biggest question marks heading into fall camp, and was rock solid at the position all season long. The snaps playing at nickel and free safety were invaluable for Johnson, giving him experience all over the field.

“When I first switched I was cornerback, so I started outside, went to nickel, moved back to free safety, so I’ve kind of gotten a taste of everything. It’s made the world of difference. I kind of ended up learning the whole defense as a whole instead of just as a position, and it’s helped me just understand football a lot better,” Johnson said.

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His experience playing quarterback in high school also helped him see defense from another perspective.

“I was a quarterback and in my eyes, free safety is just quarterback on the other side of the football. I get to react, read the offense, kind of react to what I see and make the right play,” Johnson said, “and I think that’s something that I developed as I grew up as a football player.

“I have good athleticism, long, speed, and I feel like put together that just allows me to make a lot of plays back there.”

Scalley agrees, noting that Johnson may be the first true over-the-top free safety the Utes have had since Julian Blackmon, and that his speed is a major plus.

Last year, Whittingham said Johnson ran the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team, and Johnson will certainly need to utilize that speed this season.

“Speed. He’s got really good speed over the top. He’s got great ball skills … Cole and Sione were very good, very good safeties, could play on the back end, but Tao just with his ability to cover ground is really pleasant to see back there,” Scalley said.

“Even in Day One, had a nice interception getting over the top. Ball skills and speed, his athleticism is going to prove to be very beneficial for us.”

Utah will have to replace its two starting safeties, who declared for the NFL draft, and the competition will be one to keep an eye on this spring and fall.

Johnson is certainly in the mix for a starting spot, competing alongside Stanford senior transfer Alaka’i Gilman, Nate Ritchie and Johnathan Hall.

“The safety room is a machine,” Johnson said. “We have safeties coming in every year and leaving every year, so the young guys are good, the older guys are good. We have a lot of good dudes in here.”