Auburn football: Jeremy Johnson making gains in zone-read game

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comApril 8, 2014 

Even though he's listed as the backup to Nick Marshall at quarterback, Jeremy Johnson (above) still carries himself with the mentality of a starter.

LAUREN BARNARD — Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala.Jeremy Johnson takes umbrage when people pigeonhole him as a pocket passer.

He may not have had to show off his feet too often last season as Auburn’s backup quarterback. If called upon to run the Tigers’ zone-read scheme, he said it would be right in his wheelhouse.

“It wasn't anything I never did,” said Johnson, a rising sophomore. “It's just the simple fact (of improving) with my footwork and how to do it and the right read. “

He also doesn’t like when people question his speed. At 6-foot-5 and 223 pounds, he may not look the part of a speedster. But he’ll take yards any way he can get them.

"I can run outside,” he said. “My velocity is just running downhill and getting yards."

For those who still doubt his speed, one just needs to ask a player who’s had to try to take him down.

“He’s way faster than you would think,” senior safety Jermaine Whitehead said. “He’s way smarter with the zone-read because he knows how to get to the edge. He uses his body, his length, to his advantage. He steps around a lot of guys; I’ve seen him make some steps around our D-ends that were pretty spectacular.”

Johnson’s size makes the proposition of tackling him one-on-one even more difficult. Thinking back to last season, one opposing signal-caller reminded Whitehead of Johnson: Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott. He gives up two inches to Johnson — standing 6-foot-3 — but packs an extra seven pounds, weighing in at 230.

Regardless, Whitehead said a defender has to try to take both down the same way.

“You get a chance to hit him, you’re going to hit him in the midsection and try to take everything out of him for the next play,” he said. “You hit quarterbacks to stop them from being mobile and playing the next play.”

Still, for all the talk of Johnson’s running ability this spring, it’s his arm that is the proven commodity. He made the most of his limited opportunities last season, as he finished with 422 passing yards and six touchdowns while completing 70.7 percent (29-for-41) of his attempts.

Johnson doesn’t give those numbers a second thought now.

“We can't settle for complacency,” he said. “We preach every day about executing and that's all we're focused on as quarterbacks and receivers. It's execution and just doing it consistently and not just on and off.”

In the practices Gus Malzahn has seen thus far, Johnson has done exactly that.

““He’s got really good command of the offense,” Auburn’s coach said. “He can really do the checks and everything we’re asking him to do. Jeremy has had a great attitude. He’s approaching every practice trying to get better. (Offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee has been pleased with him.”

The same goes for the Tigers’ pass-catchers — even if Johnson’s arm strength, at times, does them no favors.

“He's very good. A hundred miles per hour fastball, that's all he knows,” sophomore receiver Tony Stevens said. “He's been good, though. I can see he's transformed from last year. He knows how to read the coverage now, and knows where to throw it at, so he's gotten very good."

Johnson believes he’s far from a finished product. Listed as a sophomore on the team’s official roster, he still refers to himself as a freshman. And he readily admits, “it’s easy to get distracted” by other non-football aspects of college life.

Don’t mistake his candidness as a referendum on his self-confidence. Forget that he’s No. 2 on the depth chart.

He doesn’t view himself as such.

“I've gotten better mentally (and) physically and that comes with Coach Lashlee getting me prepared every day,” Johnson said. “I'm just approaching it like I'm the starter.

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