Auburn, Ala.–For a guy who hasn’t played a lot of football (2 career starts, 13 appearances) in his first two years at Auburn, people sure are saying a lot of nice things about Jeremy Johnson.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s head coach, is just fine with that.
“Jeremy understands that he is going to have to earn everything he gets,” Malzahn said when we met in his office last week. “A lot of that is because when he has played he’s played very well. If you look around the country at backup quarterbacks he probably did as well as anybody.”
That’s probably true. Johnson started the opening game with Arkansas last season when starter Nick Marshall was benched. He completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards in the first half. The year before as a freshman he started against Western Carolina, completing 17 of 21 passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns. In his limited playing time Johnson has completed 73.1 percent of his passes for 828 yards.
After playing two years behind Marshall, Johnson was named the starting quarterback on the Monday after the spring game in April. Malzahn made public what everybody in the locker room already knew: Johnson was his guy.
And when SEC Media Days rolled around July Malzahn put Johnson right into the glare of the spotlight with over 1,000 reporters asking questions. Before the media days were over some had cast Johnson as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Again Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee made it very clear that they are not going to low key their expectations for Johnson. He is going to be front and center. He is going to be the face of this program.
“Given that I know who Jeremy is, I’m comfortable with (the attention),” said Lashlee. “If he can’t handle some early expectations it’s going to be hard for him to handle being the quarterback here. I think Jeremy has handled all of it well. He’s learned that there is a lot more to being the quarterback at Auburn than just playing the games.”
“We are expecting him to be the best,” said Malzahn.
Johnson was comfortable with the attention he received at media days. He grew up in Montgomery dreaming about playing quarterback for Auburn. Malzahn started recruiting him in the ninth grade at Carver High School, where he was Alabama’s Mr. Football. At 6-5, 235, he was an All-State player on Carver’s 2012 state championship basketball team.
In Johnson’s mind, this is the role he was born to play. He is humble. But he does not lack for confidence.
“I’m blessed to be in this situation. I’m blessed to have this opportunity,” said Johnson, who has thrown for nine touchdown passes in his first two seasons. “I have a lot of confidence. I’ve just got a lot of weapons around me. Those guys are going to make a lot of plays for me this year. So I feel very, very good about it.”
The more pressing question about Johnson in Fall camp is exactly how he will change Auburn’s offense. In Malzahn’s first two seasons the Tigers were run-heavy (almost 73 percent of the time) with Marshall at quarterback. Marshall was great at the read option but only an adequate passer. Johnson is a lot more than adequate. He has a big, big arm.
“He can make every throw that you would ever want a quarterback to make,” said Malzahn.
Malzahn’s offense is up tempo and run first to set up the pass. And with a stable of very good running backs like Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson, and freshman Kerryon Johnson (remember that name), the Tigers will still make a living on the ground.
But there is no doubt that Auburn will take advantage of Johnson’s arm to throw the ball down the field more than in years past.
“The core of our offense is not going to change but we are going to adjust and build around what our quarterbacks and our best players can do,” said Malzahn.
Right now there is some uncertainty about the status of Auburn’s best receiver, Duke Williams. Williams has not practiced lately due to what Malzahn called a “discipline issue.” Williams is a game changer and Auburn will miss him if he doesn’t return. But there are a number of other good receivers in camp like Ricardo Louis, who Malzahn believes is positioned for a breakout season.
“We have a number of guys at that position that we have confidence in,” said Malzahn.
Both Malzahn and Lashlee said it speaks volumes about Johnson that he was willing to play behind Marshall for two seasons.
“His first year he had a good competition with Nick but Nick was older and more ready to handle the job,” said Lashlee. “The second year was tougher for Jeremy because he knew he was ready. He’s a competitor. He likes to play.”
“Most guys at this level–who have the talent that Jeremy has–would have transferred,” said Malzahn. “But Jeremy knew his time was coming and was willing to wait. That says a lot about his character.”
For Jeremy Johnson, the waiting is over. This is finally his team. Starting Sept. 5 against Louisville in Atlanta he begins to fulfill his dream. It should be fun to watch.
Next stop: Florida