Big Sky Figures to Remember - Skyline Era

“Big Sky figures worth remembering” – Taron Johnson, Weber State


At Skyline Sports, we love the stories and characters that emerge from one of the most authentic conferences in the West. The Big Sky Conference is steeped in history and heroes, holding a mystique that is unique to a conference featuring as many rural yet state-funded institutions in the United States.

One of our primary goals at Skyline Sports is the archiving of history across the state of Montana and across the Big Sky. In an effort to make sure we never forget some of the most pivotal and influential figures in the 58-year history of the league, we are introducing a quick-hitting series about those who once graced the Big Sky.

We will touch on players we’ve been able to cover (particularly in photograph) during our seven years covering the league as an entity (categorized as “Skyline Era”. We will also remember players from Colter Nuanez’s first seven years covering the league (2006-2013) during his time working in newspapers and magazines (categorized as Modern Era).

And we will also chronicle memorable figures from before we covered the league professionally, before we watched the league at all or even from before we were born thanks to the help of our great friends and colleagues from across the Big Sky (categorized as “Archived Era”).

Please enjoy “Big Sky Conference figures worth remembering”

The Character

Taron Johnson, Weber State All-American quarterback and the 2017 Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Johnson was one of heralded Weber State head coach Jay Hill’s first recruits, an under-recruited prospect who thrived from the first day he stepped into Hill’s program as a product of Sacramento, California.

Johnson had the most famous moment of his football life on January 17, 2021. In the NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs, Johnson intercepted a pass by Baltimore Ravens MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and took the pick 105 yards to the house to spark the Buffalo Bills’ 17-3 in to advance to the NFC Championship game. The interception was the first thrown in the red-zone by the former Heisman Trophy winner.

The Measurables

The 24-year-old participated in the 2018 NFL Draft Combine, measuring in at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds.

During the NFL Combine, Johnson’s marks were:

  • 40-yard dash: 4.50 seconds
  • Bench press, 225 pounds: 17 reps
  • Vertical Leap: 33 inches
  • Broad Jump: 9 feet, 10 inches
  • 3-cone drill: 7.03 seconds
  • 20-yard shuttle: 4.28 seconds
  • 60-yard shuttle: NA

NFL Scouting overview

Weber State senior cornerback Taron Johnson at the Big Sky kickoff in the summer of 2017/ by Brooks Nuanez

Johnson’s lack of size will drive him into a nickel role where he appears to have the foot quickness and cover talent to handle the job. He has to prove that he can play with confidence in his technique rather than grabbing during the route and his draft stock could be hinging on his 40-yard dash time at the Combine. He could find an early role as a CB4 before eventually filling the nickel spot.


  • Plays with good bend in space
  • Has experience in most coverages and techniques
  • Burst to ball is quick
  • Early accelerator when transitioning in man coverage
  • Possesses natural coverage skills
  • Quality plant and drive talent from backpedal
  • Looks to lean on receivers and smother them from press
  • Crowds receiver’s catch space downfield
  • Extremely aware in zone
  • Looks to squeeze windows and challenge the throw
  • Finished with 42 career passes broken up
  • Plays with good physicality and isn’t afraid to tackle


  • Smallish build is maxed out
  • Too small for the outside
  • Gets grabby in coverage and may take time to adjust to NFL refs
  • Needs to be careful not to lose downfield positioning and allow receiver a patch back to the ball
  • Long speed is a concern
  • Quicker than fast and may not be able to carry vertical threats
  • Late getting off perimeter blocks
  • Physical, but will miss some tackles due to his size

The Landscape

Weber State head coach Jay Hill/by Brooks Nuanez

During his 13 seasons as the head coach at the University of Utah, Ron McBride built the Utes into a respectable and sometimes elite program in the Western Athletic Conference and then the Mountain West. Current Weber State head coach Jay Hill was a defensive back under McBride in 1998 and 1999 at Utah before joining Coach Mac’s staff for the final three seasons McBrice led the Utes.

In 2005, McBride took over at Weber State and helped the Wildcats reach new heights. The 2008 Wildcats, led by Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year Cameron Higgins (a quarterback that will surely make an appearance in this series sooner than later), beat Montana during the regular-season. That result served as UM’s only league loss between 2006 and 2009, a run that saw the Griz go 31-1 in Big Sky games.

That 2008 WSU team also posted the first FCS playoff win in school history, posting a 49-35 win at Cal Poly before losing to Montana in a payback game in the quarterfinals the following week.

When McBride retired after the 2011 season — capping one of the best head coaching careers in program history that also included a 2009 playoff appearance, the fourth in WSU history — the Weber State program fell into a state of turmoil.

In December of 2011, John L. Smith took the Weber State head coaching position. By the following football season, he bolted to take the vacancy as the head coach at Arkansas created by the Bobby Petrino motorcycle scandal.

Enter Jody Sears, who serves as Weber’s interim head coach in 2012 and 2013. After four wins in two seasons, Sears was dismissed.

Enter Hill.

The former Utah special teams coordinator and protege of both McBride and Urban Meyer fundamentally changed Weber State’s trajectory and Johnson was one of the first key pieces to that renaissance.

Weber went from two wins in Hill’s first season in 2014 to a winning record in Year 2 to a playoff appearance in Year 3. During Johnson’s senior year in Hill’s fourth season, the Wildcats won the first of what would become three straight Big Sky Conference titles.

Johnson and his recruiting class had an enormous impact on that trajectory.

The Accolades

  • Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the year, 2017; Johnson earned second-team All-Big Sky honors in 2016 and honorable mention honors the year prior.
  • Consensus first-team All-American in 2017
  • Weber State’s all-time leader in pass breakups with 42, to go along with six career interceptions and 172 total tackles.
  • Selected in the 4th round, pick 121 overall of the 2017 NFL Draft.
  • First Weber State Wildcat drafted since Tim Toone in 2010.
  • Johnson is the 38th player from Weber State drafted in the NFL. He is one of 10 players in WSU history taken in the fourth round or higher.
  • A captain on Weber State’s Big Sky Conference co-championship squad, the first of three straight shares of a league title for the Wildcats.
  • Played on the first Weber State team in program history to win two playoff games in the same FCS postseason bracket

The Press


Weber State head coach Jay Hill

“He’s our best player on our football team and he eliminates a big portion of the football field just by being able to go and cover the opponent’s best receiver,” Hill said to Skyline Sports in 2017.

Hill to Buffalo Fanatics

“When I was at the University of Utah, I coached Sean Smith…at one time, he was the highest paid corners in the NFL…and in a lot of ways, I would rather have Taron over him. He’s just that well-rounded.”

Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer

“Taron plays one of the hardest positions on the football field…Playing nickel, you have to know a lot of the details playing that position. You’ve got to play it in a physical manner and he does. In his mind, he is the biggest guy out there.”

Total appearances in the Big Sky Record Book: just four:

  • Consensus All-American, 2017
  • Reese’s Senior Bowl invite, 2017
  • NFL Draft pick, 4th round, 121st overall in 2017
  • Big Sky Player of the Week as a senior in 2017

Why you should remember

Johnson is at the same time one of the most elite talents to come through the Big Sky in the last decade and one of the players who received the least fanfare during his career.

Weber State cornerback Taron Johnson (1)/ by Brooks Nuanez

As a sophomore and junior, he was a solid cog in a building defense and did a good job filling a role. Because of his prodigious talent, he rose to elite accolades as a senior even if his production was solid but not particularly memorable.

The evolution of the NFL game has catered to Johnson’s rapid rise to a coveted professional talent on one of the best teams in the league. The influx of spread offensive principles into the NFL and the fact that many teams run defenses with five defensive backs on the field at all times has distinctly catered to Johnson’s rise. He is a quintessential nickel, a fearless, hard-hitting and sure-tackling player who can play in the box while also playing man to man against some of the NFL’s best slot receivers.

Many Big Sky Conference talents have advanced to the highest level. Most were utterly dominant in college regardless of how they transition to the pros. But Johnson is the rare breed that has a chance to leave a much more significant memory of his playing career during his time in the NFL, which makes him a player worth remembering in the story of Weber State and the Big Sky Conference.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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