Nate Johnson will take over the reigns at quarterback in 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Jada Mitchum)
Nate Johnson will take over the reigns at quarterback in 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Jada Mitchum)
Jada Mitchum

Film Room: QB1 Nate Johnson

Taking a deeper look at Vanderbilt’s new starting quarterback.

In the midst of an offseason that has been characterized by turnover at every level, Vanderbilt has found its new starting quarterback in the transfer portal: Nate Johnson. A 4-star transfer from Utah, Johnson comes to Nashville after two years as a backup quarterback and will retain eligibility as a redshirt sophomore. Despite spending much of his first year on the sidelines, Johnson got plenty of snaps in 2023. He was featured in a two-QB system to start the year before splitting time as a starter with Utah QB Bryson Barnes to finish out the season. 

Appearing in seven games last season, Johnson threw for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns while rushing for 235 yards and 4 touchdowns. A true dual-threat option, Johnson logged more carries than passing completions in six of his seven appearances and finished with nearly as many carries (59) as total passing attempts (72) for the year. Promisingly, Johnson has shown a penchant for taking care of the football, throwing zero interceptions and losing just one fumble across two years of experience at Utah. 

While the dual-threat nature of Johnson’s play is exciting, a better understanding of his qualities as a passer and runner will shed light on how new offensive coordinator Tim Beck can maximize his potential as a starter. In his previous job as the offensive coordinator at New Mexico State, Beck was able to get the most out of dual-threat QB Diego Pavia, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards while adding 925 yards and 7 scores on the ground en route to leading the Aggies to a 10-5 finish and bowl appearance. For Johnson, there’s an exciting opportunity to work with an OC who has proven to be able to maximize a player of his caliber. 

For Vanderbilt, the blueprint for success with a running quarterback already exists; the Commodores’ only conference wins in the last four years have come with dual-threat QB Mike Wright at the helm. If Vanderbilt hopes to stand a chance of competing in a strengthened SEC in the coming years, maximizing Johnson’s abilities as a passer and runner will be crucial. With that, let’s take a deeper look at what Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback of the future has put on tape.

Speed kills

“Speed, speed, and more speed,” reads the first sentence of Johnson’s 247Sports scouting report coming out of high school. A former state champion in the 100-meter dash, Johnson has always been a threat on the ground at the quarterback position and can be the centerpiece of an offense with his rushing ability. At 6’1”, 195 pounds, Johnson has also shown his agility in the open field while running through contact. In many respects, Johnson is a polished rusher at the quarterback position. 

Schematically, Johnson’s tape shows a rusher who can win in a variety of ways. Take the clips of Johnson vs. Baylor, for example, as he moves the chains from a series of different QB Power designed runs. With a dynamic running back next to him, Johnson also wins in the open field from read-option looks, as he did for a 59-yard rushing touchdown against Arizona State. When given designed looks and clear reads, Johnson shows a clear propensity for selecting the right holes and making defenders miss in the open field. For a rushing quarterback, Johnson also does a great job of picking his spots: He doesn’t tend to always tuck the ball and run on designed passing plays despite his great ability to do so. With that, let’s take a look at Johnson’s ability through the air. 

Physical tools in the pocket…

Though it’s rather limited, Johnson’s 2023 tape as a passer details his qualities as a passer well ahead of his first season on West End. For one, Johnson has all of the physical tools needed to be effective through the air. With a very strong arm and good accuracy, Johnson can make all the throws needed to move the sticks through the air. These physical tools also translate well to his pocket presence, where Johnson is able to move off his spot and keep his eyes downfield well. If all else fails, Johnson can lean on his legs to extend plays and move the chains. Take note of Johnson’s ability to spray the ball all over the field against four different teams in the clips below.

For Beck, Johnson’s tape shows a quarterback with all of the raw tools to be a successful SEC-level passer. Despite operating behind a below-average offensive line, Johnson consistently exhibits a knack for creating space and time in the pocket. Alongside the ability to throw with velocity and a consistent, smooth release, Johnson exhibited promising signs as a freshman that he can make the throws needed to keep defenses honest. 

… but inconsistent processing.

Despite his strong athleticism, Johnson needs to make improvements as a strategic passer to impress as a Commodore. The biggest knock on Johnson as a passer during his freshman season — and as a player, generally — was his inability to consistently go through his reads rather than immediately selecting one of his first two options. Skimming through Johnson’s tape, this issue appears frequently and got him and his offense into trouble early in the season. 

Understandably, much of his preference for the first read comes down to his playcalling, which erred on the side of safe, quick throws when considering Johnson’s inexperience. Yet, it’s still important to recognize that Johnson is still very limited in terms of processing and going through his reads fully — something that came through even in some of his highlights above.

The quarterback’s bad habit forced him a few times to try and attack small windows in the face of little pressure rather than progressing through his reads. Interestingly, Johnson does not have the same issue many dual-threat quarterbacks have in terms of bailing the pocket once the first read does not appear to be open. Through his tape, albeit a small sample size, Johnson appears to be more than willing to remain in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield. For Beck, getting Johnson more comfortable with going through all of his keys before making a decision will be crucial for the quarterback’s development.

In a lot of ways, Johnson is exactly what Vanderbilt needs at the quarterback position: a young, talented passer with the ability to bail out his offense with his legs when things get muddy. Developing Johnson into a true dual-threat quarterback — and one that can put pressure on a secondary downfield — will be the deciding factor in how far this exciting prospect can take Vanderbilt.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Jada Mitchum
Jada Mitchum, Podcasts Music Correspondent
Jada Mitchum (‘27) is from Atlanta and is majoring in human organizational development and law, history and society in the College of Arts of Science. She loves to read, snuggle in bed to watch “Scandal” and laugh at TikTok videos. You can reach her at [email protected].
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