Utah QB Cam Rising is about to take a big step toward returning — but the ‘dynamic duo’ behind him is staying ready

If Cam Rising still can’t go, what did Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson prove vs. Florida? Both had intriguing moments and growing pains against the Gators.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws the ball during halftime as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Cam Rising may be feeling “pretty damn good,” but his recovery from a torn ACL is still a work in progress. Meanwhile, Brandon Rose is out indefinitely after suffering an undisclosed injury late in fall camp.

So for Thursday’s season-opening 24-11 victory over Florida at least, Utah’s quarterback situation came down to Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson.

Both got extensive looks in the victory vs. the Gators at Rice-Eccles Stadium, swapping in and out intermittently based upon the situation. Will that continue?

Well, first off, head coach Kyle Whittingham disclosed postgame that Rising will be ramping up in the coming days, though he still hedged a bit about his status.

“Cam’s made progress. … He’s gonna be able to practice essentially full-on next week,” Whittingham said. “He hasn’t been cleared, they haven’t given him the, ‘OK, you’re in.’ But he can practice with no limitations.”

That’s potentially encouraging for his chances to play at Baylor, but given that he’s still only about eight months removed from the injury, his imminent return is no sure thing.

In the event he’s again donning a T-shirt instead of a jersey on the next game night, what can we take from what the other guys did against the Gators?

Well, for starters, Barnes got the start.

And the start of his start could not possibly have gone any better, as he lofted a perfectly-placed pass to Money Parks for a 70-yard touchdown on the Utes’ first offensive play.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) and Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) celebrate the win as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

“Oh yeah, we knew what we were gonna run with our opener, the first play of the game,” Barnes said afterward. “We had an idea of what kind of tendencies they do when they come out, so just let it rip.”

The rest of his evening couldn’t possibly live up to that, and he ultimately finished 12 of 18 for 159 yards and that passing TD. He also had a third-quarter rushing touchdown.

There was nothing scintillating about his night, which was the epitome of a “game manager”-type performance. Take away that opening play, and Barnes was 11 of 17 for 89 yards over the final 58:50 of game time. He had only 51 passing yards after the first quarter.

“I mean, they’re not gaudy numbers, but he didn’t turn it over,” said Whittingham.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) throws the ball for the Utes in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Of course, Barnes’ pedestrian stats are partly attributable to Johnson getting as many snaps as he did.

On the first day of fall camp, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig noted that he’d be installing sub-packages for the redshirt freshman, at the very least. And in the lead-up to the game, after declaring the QB battle “neck and neck” and “a dead heat,” Whittingham added that even if Johnson didn’t wind up starting, he’d get in the game “no matter what.”

He had to wait until the second quarter to get on the field, but he made an immediate impact.

A previously moribund running attack suddenly had some juice, and he quickly picked up a first down with his legs.

That’s where he did his most damage, as he rushed for 45 yards on six carries, including a dazzling 27-yard score in the second quarter.

“It felt great — the O-line did their job, made great blocks, the receivers did their job as well, making great blocks. And you know, it was just it was an electric night,” Johnson said.

That’s a good word for it, and one that’d be repeated later.

Asked if it was difficult switching as often as they did, with both QBs sometimes playing in the same series, Barnes said yielding some plays to his counterpart was pretty easy to accept.

“This dude’s got an extra dimension to him,” he said of Johnson. “It’d be foolish not to use him.”

Of course, the redshirt freshman wasn’t perfect, and has plenty of work to do.

He completed 3 of 4 passes, but they amassed just six yards in total. And his one incompletion could well have been an interception if the Florida DB in coverage had been able to make a slightly better break on the ball. His passing reads are not totally natural yet. Meanwhile, he put the ball on the ground twice, though he recovered each.

Still, there was plenty to like.

“Nate came in and gave us a spark,” said Whittingham. “Struggled with a little bit of ball security a couple of times, hanging on to the ball, but he’s got a bright future, and he’s electric. He makes guys miss, he looks looks like he’s the fastest guy in the field every time he’s out there.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) runs for a touchdown in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

The coach said that with Rising out, he likes the two-headed monster that Barnes and Johnson provide, pointing out that they’re so different that opposing coaches have to have, essentially, two entirely different defensive gameplans.

“Nate is just a different type of guy to defend, and presents a different set of problems for the opposing defensive coordinator,” said Whittingham. “You look at those runs he made, he made guys miss. He’s got a great ability to run the football. His throwing is coming along, and and I don’t want to discount that, but it’s a change-up.”

He equated the packages Johnson runs to a more dynamic wildcat. When he puts an Eric Weddle or Ja’Quinden Jackson type in the QB spot, defenses generally will load up against the run. While Johnson’s passing isn’t a finished product yet, the Utes coaches feel it’s at least enough of threat to keep defenses honest.

Speaking of honesty …

Whittingham insisted in the run-up to Thursday’s game that not naming a starting quarterback wasn’t gamesmanship to keep Florida guessing, but the simple byproduct of the Utes themselves not knowing if Rising would be ready to go: “Cam has made progress — that’s why we delayed and delayed; we didn’t want to make a decision until we had a medical decision.”

And yet — when Barnes was asked when he found out he’d be starting against Florida, he said it was a week and a half ago.

What that means about Rising’s full participation in practice this coming week, and his availability against Baylor is anyone’s guess.

But if self-proclaimed “dynamic duo” is needed again, they insist they’ll be ready, and even better.

“You go out there, just stay relaxed, stay focused, [and] if the play goes bad, just have short-term memory loss,” said Johnson. “There’s obviously gonna be adversity in the game; there was tonight, and both QBs battled back from adversity and came out with the dub.”