Nate Johnson would have preferred more sleep Saturday night into Sunday.
The University of Utah freshman quarterback also would have preferred to not be woken up Sunday morning by a seemingly endless string of notifications on his iPhone, but he was OK with the reason for being sleep-deprived.
Johnson made his collegiate debut on Saturday night for the Utes, doing so with a bang.
His first touch, a shotgun snap on second-and-goal from the 8-yard line, went for a touchdown after he sped to the right pylon. His second touch, another shotgun snap on first-and-goal from the 9, went for a touchdown after he sped to the left pylon as part of a 45-20 Utah victory over Arizona.
If nothing else, Johnson’s positive initial offering left one wondering not only what comes next as the games only get more important, but what is possible down the road as the program stares at a potential quarterback opening.
Cam Rising, a fifth-year junior with one year of eligibility remaining, indicated to the media late Monday afternoon that he will participate in Senior Night festivities before the Utes take on Stanford (8 p.m., ESPN). Rising’s inclusion in Senior Night has long been assumed, but nothing official has been announced on the All-Pac-12 quarterback’s future.
“I feel like my confidence can grow a lot,” Johnson said. “The guys pump me up every day, they tell me to stay ready. I stayed ready and this experience gave me a big confidence booster.”
Added Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham: “We believe he has a high ceiling, and a lot of potential, and has a bright future in the program. It’s still really early to make that determination yet as to how much he’ll contribute in the future, but right now, we like his trajectory and what he’s done and really pleased with what he did on Saturday night.”
Upon settling in at the Eccles Football Center early last week to begin preparations for Arizona, Johnson learned he would have a specific package installed as part of the game plan. Whittingham on Monday said there was a Johnson package as part of the game plan for a previous game, but they never used it.
Such a package was essentially the brainchild of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who noted two key things about the situation.
Utah is facing depth challenges in its backfield between injuries and the personal issues Tavion Thomas has dealt with for the last five weeks. Furthermore, Ludwig wants to generate explosive plays, and Johnson, who ran the 100-meter dash in 10.49 seconds while at Clovis (Calif.) High School near Fresno, is already one of the most explosive options at Ludwig’s disposal.
When Johnson’s package was called for the first time late in the first quarter, resulting in the 8-yard touchdown, the moment did not look too big for him. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he announced his arrival, potentially as the future of the position at Utah, in grand fashion.
“That was fun to watch,” Ludwig said. “You always wonder when you put a freshman in for the first time in a game, game 9, but he responded well. The lights weren’t too bright for him, and he’s a dynamic player. We look for that package to continue to grow.”
Added Johnson: “Once I heard my package was called, the adrenaline was pumping and pumping. I just didn’t want to be scared, I wanted to stay ready.”
Johnson’s package growing is largely predicated upon Whittingham and Ludwig successfully conducting a balancing act with Johnson’s eligibility.
NCAA eligibility rules state a player can play in up to four games and preserve a redshirt. Johnson has played in one game, but Utah has at least four games left, with a fifth possible if it advances to the Pac-12 championship game.
Whittingham offered one scenario on Monday where Johnson doesn’t redshirt. Such a move may be necessary if issues at running back persist, but a more prudent move would see Whittingham and Ludwig carefully pick and choose where to use Johnson in an effort to preserve the redshirt, giving him four years to play beginning in 2023.
“It’ll be a balancing act through the remainder of the season, no doubt, picking and choosing the games or the spots in which we use him,” Ludwig said. “I know one thing, we have to make them count, we have to make those reps count.
“You try to put the young man in position for success, knowing he has limited experience right now in college, and drawing on some things he’s done in high school and has some confidence in. Again, he responded very well to it and I look for that to continue to grow, but with the P.S. that we have several games remaining and he has three games left before he can’t play anymore and burn a redshirt.”
Added Whittingham: “Each week, we go through our redshirt roster and guys that are scheduled to potentially redshirt, we keep track of the games and monitor that. When we get to that tipping point, which is that fourth game. At four, you’re good to redshirt. At five, you’re not, so we make those decisions and right now, in Nate’s case, we have at least four games left, and with three left to utilize, we have to decide. Either keep him to four, or just use him every single week.”
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