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SALT LAKE CITY — The QB2 spot was never going to be determined early into fall camp — at least not until the team had gone through its first scrimmage setting.
"We have a lot of really good candidates, it's just not separating itself right now," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said last week, days before the team's scrimmage on Saturday. "Hopefully after the scrimmage it will."
With Cam Rising leading the charge as the returning starter at the position, and the one getting national attention, there's little rush to nail down the back-up quarterback position. Still, Whittingham wants to have his depth chart — if not to just know who to distribute the bulk of the reps to in practice — figured out sooner than later.
The battle is likely down to former four-star Texas quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson and native Utahn and walk-on Bryson Barnes. It's a battle that's been brewing since the middle of the 2021 season — and really, in earnest since spring.
Jackson has dual-threat abilities and likely more upside, but he's had to develop into a more consistent passer following a rocky start to his collegiate career. Barnes is still not on scholarship but proved in the Rose Bowl to be unphazed by the pressure and is a consistent and steady signal caller.
But there's a small glimmer of hope that freshman quarterback Nate Johnson, who got on campus just before fall camp started, can be in that consideration for the QB2 spot his first season. Whittingham — almost kind of — opened the door to the possibility earlier this week when he said the former Elite 11 QB is "really looking good" so far in camp.
It's not much, but there's still a fighting chance for the Clovis, California, native.
Whether Johnson is in contention for the spot this season or not is not the biggest priority to the freshman. With Rising as the team's starter, it has given him time to develop and learn the playbook. But just because he has time, it hasn't changed his preparation and willingness to learn the position and playbook quickly.
"I mean, once I get that playbook down," he said, trailing off a bit. "And shoot, if coach calls my number, I have to be ready — can't get scared, can't be nervous, I just have to be ready and I've just gotta have that confidence to be able to know when I get in that game. I have a lot of people watching, so I've gotta have that high confidence and make sure when I get thrown in a game I gotta be doing really good."
For now, he patiently bides his time with an air of confidence, one with an ego-less realism about where he's positioned on the team. He knew what he was getting into when he signed with Utah; and now that he's donned the red jersey, there's little to distract him from what he needs to do to showcase his talent.
Every day of practice, Johnson said he's working to "make every rep count," even when there can often be few given to the freshman. But any rep is still a chance to showcase what he can do on the field; it's a small window tryout to give the coaching staff confidence that they've made the right decision to invest in his future.
The likelihood of Johnson winning the QB2 job is low, but it isn't zero, either.
And though slinging the ball is one of the main aspects of playing quarterback, Johnson points to his lightning-fast speed that led him to be the 100-meter dash champion in the central section championship in California as one of his biggest strengths he can add to the team.
"It's very rare to see a really fast quarterback," Johnson said. "So really, my speed and being able to read defenses and be able to make those tight window throws, I mean, those are some of the gifts I have from God."
But fall camp, especially his first at the collegiate level, remains a "learning process," and one Johnson is soaking in. And part of that is taking the advice from the other quarterbacks in the room — which happens to also be his competition — to help him develop in the system. It's Barnes who taught him to have "short-term memory loss" — move onto the next play regardless of what happened before it.
That will bode well for all the quarterbacks in the room looking to get their shot on the field behind Rising, but especially for the freshman quarterback looking to break in. But in the end, it's always about the results on the field.
"I'm not worried about keeping people happy right now, I'm just worried about results on the field," Whittingham said of his quarterbacks. "We'll just take it from there. I don't have time to worry about who's happy and who's not."
Johnson remains ready to showcase what he can do.