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Meet Nate Johnson, a quarterback, a sprinter — and Utah football’s top Class of 2022 recruit

The California quarterback has elite speed, but always wanted to be more than an athlete at the college level

(Gary Kazanjian | Special to The Tribune) Clovis High School quarterback Nate Johnson, who committed to play for the University of Utah, shown on the court near the practive field Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Clovis, Calif.

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Clovis, Calif. • On the Fowler Avenue side of Clovis High School’s sprawling campus, where much of its athletics facilities are situated, there are unmistakable sights and sounds of summer.

Whistles blowing, coaches shouting instructions, players operating various drills as the Cougars’ third preseason practice, the first one allowed in shoulder pads, begins to unfold.

Lamonica Stadium, Clovis’s 7,500-seat home field named after Oakland Raiders great and two-time AFL MVP Daryle Lamonica, is adjacent to another football field inside a full eight-lane, 400-meter track.

A football field inside a track is symbolic of what Nate Johnson’s high school years have been. Adept at both sports, known for both sports, but not wanting his accolades in one to define him in the other.

When the University of Utah football program initially recruited Johnson a year ago, he fancied himself a quarterback, but the Utes viewed him as an athlete.

From Utah’s point of view, that initial assessment was fair. Johnson had yet to become the full-time varsity quarterback at Clovis High School, but he had put up strong numbers at wide receiver as a sophomore in 2019. Furthermore, Johnson ran the 100-meter in 11.33 seconds and long-jumped 20-8.5 that spring, so yes, pigeon-holing him as an athlete made sense at the time.

That was at the time, though. It was not going to satisfy Johnson as his high school career and the recruitment process wore on.

Johnson is a quarterback.

Adjacent to Lamonica Stadium sits wide, seemingly endless, multipurpose grass. It is in this space the Clovis football team begins the morning. It is in this space that Nate Johnson first comes into focus.

The early portions of practice offer nothing concrete on Johnson, a four-star, class of 2022 quarterback who committed to the Utes in June. Although, if you believe in the initial eye test, Johnson certainly passes that. A chiseled frame, huge upper-leg muscles poking out from a pair of shorts. A tinted helmet visor looks menacing while eliminating the possibility of seeing Johnson’s eyes, which eliminates the possibility of telling anything in terms of facial language, or what he’s thinking.

It is time for some 11-on-11, with Johnson under center. Now, you get a glimpse of what the big deal is, why Utah wanted him, why he was one of 20 finalists at the prestigious Elite 11 Finals earlier this summer, why the careful eyes of amateur and seasoned evaluators believe Johnson’s ceiling is high.

The situation is third-and-3. Johnson looks off a linebacker, then hits his receiver on a quick slant. Move the chains.

The situation is third-and-8. The Clovis offensive line gives Johnson ample time. A hard shoulder fake, the defense does not completely bite, but bites enough that Johnson hits his receiver for 35 yards down the right sideline. Move the chains again.

Another third down, he again has time in the pocket. An effortless 30 yards down the left hash, between two defenders, directly into the chest of his receiver. Move the chains once more.

“His athletic abilities will get him in the door anywhere,” Johnson’s Fresno-based private quarterback coach, Greg Panelli, later said during a phone interview. “He’s a freak athlete, but you click on the game film, you get 30 seconds in, you realize, yeah, he’s a Power Five kid.”

“Credit to the kid”

(Gary Kazanjian | Special to The Tribune) Clovis High School quarterback Nate Johnson works out with his team at Clovis High School, who committed to play for the University of Utah, shown Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Clovis, Calif.

At one point in the middle of all this, Clovis defensive backs coach Jeremy Luginbill comes over to the sideline, introduces himself, and jokingly asks what’s with all of the attention on Johnson.

With the whistle about to blow on this particular practice period and Luginbill about to be on the run to the next practice period, he is asked his thoughts on Johnson. Luginbill pauses, smiles and, as the whistle blows, begins to jog. A couple of steps in, he turns his head back, still smiling.

“We knew.”

Hammond knew years ago, standing on the sidelines watching Johnson quarterback Clark Intermediate School in the seventh and eighth grades. Other people likely had some idea of what was coming when Johnson began playing organized, school-sponsored football in the fifth and sixth grades at Mickey Cox Elementary.

In those early days, Johnson played all over the field. Quarterback, receiver, various spots on defense, even defensive end at one point in his youth.

When the junior high school players ascend to high school, Hammond’s preference is to keep the freshmen together, so Johnson quarterbacked the Clovis freshman team in 2018. When he rose to the varsity as a sophomore the following year, Isaiah Robles was entrenched as a multiyear starter, Hammond needed help at wide receiver, so Johnson got on board. His 1,067 total yards that season included 577 as a receiver, while seeing limited quarterback reps.

“Credit to the kid, he went out and did that for us, and I think that will help in the long run because it showed what kind of a teammate he is,” Hammond said outside his office following that morning practice on July 28. “He never complained, he contributed, he had a very good season for us as a sophomore. That experience helped him because it gave him a chance to see what other people mean to the team.”

Johnson did what he was asked as a sophomore, but he wanted to be a quarterback, not only in high school, but in college. Entering his junior season, the Clovis starting job belonged to him, but the COVID-19 pandemic drastically complicated matters, not just from a high school football standpoint, but from a recruiting standpoint.

The pandemic delayed the state of California’s August-to-December high school football schedule multiple times, which meant Johnson had little game film at quarterback. In the interim, with the 2020 season hanging in the balance, the film Johnson did have was enough for Utah to offer Johnson a scholarship, but as an athlete, not a quarterback.

“His junior year, with the season pushed back, mentally I think it started weighing on him because he thought he wouldn’t get the recruiting at the position he wanted,” Johnson’s father, Jerome, said during a phone interview.

A firm commitment to Utah

(Gary Kazanjian | Special to The Tribune) Clovis High School quarterback Nate Johnson, shown in the background, as his team as head coach Rich Hammond talks to the team at Clovis High School, who committed to play for the University of Utah, shown Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Clovis, Calif.

Regardless of what position on the field the initial offer came, the Utes were in the proverbial door first. Jerome Johnson, who played college basketball in the early-1980s at both Oklahoma and Utah State, recognized that and to him, it was going to matter as his son continued to draw potential suitors.

Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald has been recruiting the Central Valley for a decade. McDonald has known Hammond for at least that long, the two men consider each other friends, McDonald making it clear during an interview after a recent Utes practice that he trusts Hammond when Hammond tells him he has a recruitable kid.

“They’re not silver-spoon kids out there, and this is not a silver-spoon program, so when you get those types of kids, they understand how to work and they’re really talented,” McDonald said of continuing to look to the Central Valley for recruits. “You can always find skill there. You love their fire and their work ethic for sure.”

Lacking film as a quarterback, not to mention college coaching staffs across all divisions lacking the ability to visit recruits, and vice versa, in the middle of a 14-month, NCAA-mandated dead period, Panelli and Hammond helped get him more QB film by putting together what Hammond called “an old-school throwing tape, a pro day tape, Bill Walsh-type stuff.”

Hammond sent that tape out to a slew of Power Five schools, including Utah. That initial scholarship offer as an athlete soon flipped to a quarterback offer, but Utah had company now. Michigan offered, Arizona State offered, Oregon State offered, but remember, McDonald and the Utes were first.

When the dead period finally ended on June 1, opening the floodgates for recruits to again take official visits to schools all over the country, Johnson was among the first wave of kids to visit Utah, with his father, stepmother, brother, biological mother, and biological grandfather in tow.

That Utah visit began on June 3, with the family scheduled to take a trip to Ann Arbor to see Michigan on June 11. Going into the summer, Jerome and Nate sat down and agreed that they wanted to get the decision out of the way before the latter begins his senior season on Aug. 27.

“When we left that visit, we had questions answered that we didn’t even have written down,” Jerome Johnson deadpanned. “Not to put Michigan down, but my wife said, ‘We’re going to do the next trip, but who’s going to beat this? I’m sold.’”

Johnson did indeed take that official visit to Michigan on June 11. On June 18 at 5:11 p.m., Johnson fired off a tweet announcing his commitment to Utah. That decision was met with great fanfare and wide eyes given the Utes, one, successfully recruited an Elite 11 finalist, and two, out-recruited Michigan for an Elite 11 finalist.

As Jerome Johnson harped on all along, Utah was there first, Utah showed loyalty, Utah showed the love.

Both Nate and Jerome said in separate interviews that the commitment to Utah is firm and final, and there is no intention to open things up to other programs or take other visits.

“Utah being first, building the relationship, going the whole way through, I think that counted for a ton at the end of the day,” Hammond said. “That part really, really helped. They put themselves in the door first, and then they see him play quarterback, it’s a no-brainer.”

(Gary Kazanjian | Special to The Tribune) Clovis High School quarterback Nate Johnson works out with his team at Clovis High School, who committed to play for the University of Utah, shown Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Clovis, Calif.

Racing into Utah fall camp 2022

As COVID-19 vaccinations became more prevalent and general life began to return to some normalcy earlier this year, Johnson got busy, and has stayed busy since the spring.

After the Utah and Michigan visits, after the commitment to the Utes, Johnson was one of the 20 class of 2022 quarterbacks at Elite 11, which took place June 30-July 3 in Los Angeles.

Elite 11 has long been considered an invaluable experience, but not strictly from an on-field football perspective.

PROJECTED 2022 UTAH QB DEPTH

• Cam Rising, redshirt junior

• Ja’Quinden Johnson, true sophomore or redshirt freshman

• Peter Costelli, true sophomore or redshirt freshman

• Nate Johnson, true freshman

• Brandon Rose, true freshman

“It was just a lot of learning going on there over four days,” Johnson said, sporting an Elite 11 Nike Dri-FIT T-shirt as he spoke. “Being able to compete with the top 20 guys in the country, that was a dream. Playing quarterback for the first time last year and then being able to hit the Elite 11 Finals, that’s where all the work comes into play. The experience there, connecting with all of those guys, it was a lot of fun.”

Before any of that, California was able to cobble together a truncated spring high school football season, Clovis finishing 3-2 as Johnson completed 65% of his passes for 1,022 yards and eight touchdowns. He finished with 1,329 total yards and 11 total touchdowns.

Johnson is also a sprinter and long jumper on the track and field team, but when football ended on April 16, Cougars track coach EJ Jackson tried to give Johnson a week off before diving in. Johnson declined.

With no track season in 2020, no dedicated sprint training in 2021, and five days removed from football season, Johnson covered 100 meters in 11.03 at a dual meet. He then debuted in earnest on April 23 at an early-season invitational by running 10.8.

A wind-aided 10.49 came later, as did 10.52 twice, once wind-aided and once legal. That legal 10.52 came at the final meet of the season, the CIF Central Section Masters.

“If we had a full season, he would have run something crazy, 10.2, 10.3, something in there if we did have a state meet,” Jackson said. “That’s the type of athlete he is.”

Should Johnson make Jackson look smart and run 10.3 or lower, it would qualify as monstrous in what is annually one of the top high school sprinting states in the country.

In 2019, the last full, uninterrupted track and field season in California, the fastest wind-legal 100 in the state was 10.3. The wind-legal 10.52 Johnson ran was tied for the fourth-fastest mark in the state this spring.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, for what it’s worth, has said in the past that he likes when his skill-position guys have a track background, and that it is a factor within overall recruiting decisions.

“If a guy has not run track, a skill guy, you better do your homework because sometimes, that means his top end [speed] is not what it needs to be,” Whittingham said in December to a question regarding the late Ty Jordan’s high school sprinting background.

There was no California state championship meet in 2021 because of COVID, but Johnson is not leaving for Utah until he gets a crack at a state title in track and field.

In an effort to have a “normal” senior year behind his pandemic-impacted junior year, Johnson will not graduate early from Clovis and enroll at Utah in January. Instead, he will walk graduation, go to his prom, and yes, run at the California state championships in 2022, which will coincidentally take place in Clovis at Buchanan High School, May 27-28.

Utah is on board with Johnson’s plan to not graduate early and pursue a full senior year. From its end, how Johnson wants to handle his final year of his high school, graduate early or graduate on time, is his business. The coaching staff does not want to have one of its first interactions with Johnson and his family be influencing his decision and have him not be happy about it.

Johnson will walk graduation, go to prom, run track, and be in Salt Lake City next summer to begin preparations for the 2022 season.

“He wants to win a state title in the 100 meters, and he didn’t get a chance to do that this year,” Hammond said. “He wound up with one of the fastest times in the state without real training. He really wants to do that, and again, Utah has been supportive. He’ll get there in camp, have a chance to develop, but he’ll have a chance to finish what he wants to do in high school without regret.”

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