Nate Johnson preferred to sleep more from Saturday night to Sunday.
The University of Utah quarterback also would have preferred not to be woken up by endless iPhone notifications on Sunday morning, but he was okay with the lack of sleep.
Johnson made his college debut for the Utes on Saturday night, and he did so with a bang.
The first touchdown, a shotgun snap from the 8-yard line on second-and-goal, ran to the right pylon and went for a touchdown. The second touchdown, another shotgun snap on first-and-goal, went for a touchdown after running up the left pylon as part of Utah’s 45-20 win over Arizona.
If nothing else, Johnson’s positive debut is one game he thinks will be more important, not just what comes next, but what might lie down the road as the program looks toward the quarterback opener.
Cam Rising, a fifth-year junior with one year of eligibility remaining, indicated to the media that he will participate in Senior Night festivities Monday afternoon. before the Utes take on Stanford (8 p.m., ESPN). Rising’s inclusion on senior night has long been speculated, but nothing has been announced on the All-Pac-12 quarterback’s future.
“I feel like my confidence can grow a lot,” Johnson said. “The guys lift me up every day, tell me to stay ready. I was prepared and this experience gave me a huge confidence boost.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham added: “He has a high ceiling, and we believe he has a lot of potential and a bright future in the program.” It’s too early to tell how much he’ll contribute in the future, but right now, we like his direction and what he’s done and we’re very happy with what he did on Saturday night.
As he sat down at the Eccles Football Center early last week to begin his preparations for Arizona, Johnson learned that he will be packing a specific package as part of his game plan. Whittingham said there was a Johnson package that was part of the game plan for the previous game on Monday, 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.
Between the injury and Tavion Thomas’ personal issues over the past five weeks, Utah is facing deep challenges in its backfield. Ludwig also wants to make explosive plays, and Johnson, who ran the 100-meter dash in 10.49 seconds while at Clovis (Calif.) High School in Fresno, is one of the most explosive players at Ludwig’s disposal.
When Johnson’s package was called for the first time late in the first quarter, resulting in an 8-yard touchdown, the moment didn’t seem big to him. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he announced his arrival, the future of the position in Utah, in grand fashion.
“That was fun to watch,” Ludwig said. You’re always surprised when you put a freshman in game 9, but he responded well. The lights weren’t too bright for him, and he’s a dynamic player. We want the pack to continue to grow.
Johnson added: “Once I heard my pack called, the adrenaline was pumping and I was pulling. I just didn’t want to be scared, I wanted to stay ready.”
The rise of Johnson’s package was largely dependent on Whittingham and Ludwig’s successful balancing act with Johnson’s qualifications.
NCAA eligibility rules state that a player can play up to four games and retain a redshirt. Johnson has played in one game, but Utah is at least four games away, a possible fifth if it advances to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Whittingham presented a scenario Monday that Johnson would not blush for. Such a move could be necessary if issues at running back persist, but a more cautious move would give Whittingham and Ludwig Johnson four years to play starting in 2023 while choosing carefully where to protect his redshirt.
“For the rest of the season, there’s no doubt we’ll be picking and choosing the games or the positions we use,” Ludwig said. “I know one thing, we’ve got to make them count, we’ve got to make those reps count.
“You know the guy has some experience in college now, and you try to put him in a position to succeed by drawing on some of the things he’s done in high school. Again he responded well to that and I saw. For him to continue to grow, but we have a lot of games left in PS and three games left he can’t play anymore and burn a redshirt.
Added Whittingham: “Every week we go through the redshirt list and we go through the guys who are slated to redshirt, we watch the games and we monitor that. When we get to that point, that’s the fourth game. It is good to wear a red dress four times. At five, you’re not, so we make those decisions and now, in Nate’s case, we have at least four games left, and three left to use, we have to make a decision. Either keep it to four or just use it every week.
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