SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – After leading a comeback victory over Baylor last week, redshirt freshman Nate Johnson has moved up the depth chart past Bryson Barnes, and is expected to start this weekend for the Utes against Weber State.
Starting quarterback Cam Rising, who has yet to play in 2023, is expected to be held out for a third straight game as he continues to recover from knee surgery.
Johnson led a game-tying 88-yard drive in the fourth quarter against the Bears, capped by his seven-yard touchdown run.
“I think it was a 15-play drive, and consumed about nine minutes,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “He got us in the end zone finally.”
“Offensively, things weren’t going well,” Johnson said. “Cam, Bryson just told me to go out there and be a leader,” Johnson said. “Take those guys home, lead the team, be poised and calm, and go get us that win.”
While Johnson has played significant time in both victories over Florida and Baylor, Johnson is expected to receive the majority of snaps Saturday against Weber State.
“I’d say based on the whole body of work that we’ve seen, Nate deserves the chance to be the starter if Cam is not available,” Whittingham said.
In two games, Johnson has completed 9 of 11 passes for 88 yards, while rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
“Being here, working everyday, being here for two years and have the opportunity,” Johnson said. “You never know when your number is going to get called. Coach Whitt and Coach Ludwig, they called my number, and it was a true blessing.”
As for Rising, he has returned to full practice, but will probably not be available until the Pac-12 Conference opener against UCLA on September 22. As of now, he still hasn’t been cleared by the medical staff.
“His doctor in particular, the surgeon who did the surgery, is the ultimate guy that says thumbs up or thumbs down for playing. Right now, we don’t have that thumbs up yet.”
With just 318 yards passing in two games this year, Whittingham is hoping his quarterbacks can go downfield more this week against the Wildcats.
“I think we can take more shots and give our receivers more opportunities to make plays,” Whittingham said. “We may have been too close 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.”
With Micah Bernard out for the season, Jaylon Glover will be counted on more along with Ja’Quinden Jackson to carry the load in the run game.
“We lost a leader,” Glover said about Bernard. “He was my big brother coming in, so losing him for the season definitely is a blow. But the coaches have prepared me for these moments, and I’m going to do whatever they need to help this team win.”
Weber State head coach Mickey Mental knows Utah will play its own brand of football, no matter who the quarterback is.
“They are who they are, and they don’t shy away from that,” Mental said. “No matter what guys they have banged up, I think that’s the testament of a great program. So it will be a great test for us.”
The Wildcats come in with a national ranking of their own, #9 in the latest FCS poll, and are coming off a 34-17 victory over Northern Iowa last week.
“They stay together,” Mental said about his team. “Good, bad, when there is adversity, these guys don’t look at other people to make plays. They take it upon themselves to make a play.”
Utah and Weber State will kick off at noon Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.