Utah will have a new starting QB against Weber State, one way or another

Coach Kyle Whittingham said redshirt freshman QB Nate Johnson has been elevated above Bryson Barnes on the depth chart, while Rising remains day to day in his comeback from an ACL injury.

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

Utah football fans were clamoring for much of Saturday’s game against Baylor for the coaching staff to just play Nate Johnson at quarterback.

And with 10 minutes left in that game, Johnson was in for good, and Bryson Barnes was out.

Based on what head coach Kyle Whittingham said during Monday’s media availability at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, that’s going to be the case going forward.

Johnson has been officially promoted to the team’s “backup” quarterback job behind “starter” Cam Rising, who is still recovering from surgery for a torn ACL.

While the coach said after Saturday’s game that he’s hopeful Rising will be cleared to play this weekend vs. Weber State, he added Monday that the game against the Wildcats will feature a new starter, regardless.

“I’d say based on the whole body of work that we’ve seen, Nate deserves the chance. And he’ll be the starter if Cam’s not available,” said Whittingham. “That’s where we’re at, and that’s after a lot of evaluation and giving everybody the opportunity.”

The coach noted that the decision wasn’t based solely on the Baylor game, where Barnes went 6 for 19, while Johnson led a late 15-play drive that culminated in him scoring a game-tying 7-yard touchdown run.

But those late heroics certainly didn’t hurt.

“Nate was very poised on that last drive, he made some outstanding decisions, outstanding plays,” said Whittingham.

Here are a few other highlights from the coach’s media session.

How much does he trust Johnson’s ball security?

“More and more. He’s still a work in progress in that regard, and there’ll still be some growing pains in that regard, but he has really improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the last year.

“Knock on wood, that’s getting better, as well. It has come out a couple times, you’re right, and that’s a work in progress, as well. But he certainly understands the importance of it and is committed to being better at it. That’s two-fold for a quarterback — possessing it when you are carrying it, and then when you throw it, make good decisions and keep it out of harm’s way.”

What is Rising’s status right now?

“Day to day to day to day to day. That’s all it is, day by day. … We’re at the — ‘mercy’ is probably not the right word; the direction of the medical staff, and his doctor in particular. The surgeon who did the surgery is the ultimate guy who says thumb’s up or thumb’s down for playing, and right now we don’t have that thumb’s up yet.

“He practices without limitation. He doesn’t want him to get hit — which, he would never get hit in practice anyway, regardless of the situation. So that being the case, he practices as if he was healthy to play the game and ready to roll. But until the doctor says it’s go time, we’ll just keep proceeding as we have.”

How can the coaches juice the offense, beyond the QB play?

“Yeah, that would be good to be more productive throwing the football. Coaching-wise, I think we can do — I don’t want to say ‘a better job,’ but [we can] take more shots, give our receivers more opportunities to make plays up the field. We may have been a little bit too close to the vest so far. We’re 2-0, so I’m not questioning things, but in order to get more production, we’ve got to be willing to put the ball up the field more.

“Money Parks, put the ball up the field to him and just let him out-run people with his sheer speed. Devaughn Vele, with his ability to go up and get the contested catch; Devaughn’s percentage is very high on deep balls of either making the catch or drawing a [pass interference penalty]. So I think we’ve got to be a little more willing to do that.”