Rhett Lashlee: QB Jeremy Johnson 'a good luxury for us'

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 3, 2014 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Auburn beats Arkansas 45-21 in the season opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday. 08.30.14

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

AUBURN, Ala.Jeremy Johnson's performance Saturday provided the perfect mask for his jitters.

Yes, the player who completed 12 of his 16 attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns — all in the first half — was nervous at the outset of Saturday's contest. It had nothing to do with the circumstances, being Auburn's season opener as well as his first start versus an SEC opponent. It's just that Johnson has always felt this way; he couldn't remember a time when he wasn't anxious before a game.

Only one thing has to happen for him to settle down, though.

"I'm always going to have jitters until I complete the first pass," he said.

And once he completed his first pass Saturday, he just kept doing it, connecting on his first eight attempts. By that time, he had already thrown for 204 yards and a pair of scores.

Ever the good teammate, Johnson deflected all acclaim away from himself afterward.

"The coaches worked with me all fall camp, watching film and just knowing the weaknesses (of Arkansas)," he said. "We took advantage of every opportunity and my teammates did a wonderful job of making me look good. I want to give all the praise to them, because without them, I wouldn't be in this (situation)."

Johnson's pristine, level-headed play was one of the least surprising results of Saturday's game to Auburn's coaching staff.

"That confirmed what we thought about Jeremy. We've been saying for a long time that he's a very talented quarterback," coach Gus Malzahn said. "It was good to see him go out there and perform like that. We were very impressed as a coaching staff. We said that he'd have a role even before that game and he will. Each week, it could possibly be a little different."

At the moment, no one but Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee know exactly what that entails. The only thing that stays consistent week to week is their assertion that Nick Marshall is the starter, but that they have the utmost confidence in Johnson as well.

As Lashlee sees it, it's a good problem to have.

"We can put Jeremy in and not miss a beat," he said. "It’s a really good luxury for us right now to have two guys that we have that much confidence in."

It was easy for Lashlee to rattle off the things Johnson did right after reviewing the film.

He felt Johnson played with "great poise." The sophomore signal-caller didn't have "any busts," either. And sure, there were "one or two throws" that could have been delivered a smidgen better and a couple more where receivers "bailed him out."

Still, to deem it anything less than spectacular would be off the mark.

"He played really well," Lashlee said. " ... He was excited. I was more worried about him being overexcited than nervous. He just played like a kid out there having a blast. I was really proud of the way he responded. He gave our team a lift."

And that boost started from the jump, Lashlee noted, as Johnson led the Tigers on touchdown drives on their first three possessions. And he continued to play well through a clock malfunction; while Lashlee and the other coaches were able to stay in contact with the side judge to figure out the time, players didn't have that luxury. It didn't fluster Johnson in the slightest.

Consider Lashlee satisfied.

"Overall, really proud of him," Lashlee said. "He had a great game mentally, he threw the ball really, really well and he honestly played like I expected him to."

But there is still a long season ahead. And even after his exceptional effort against the Razorbacks, all Johnson could focus on were the areas where he needed to improve — watching more film, making more precise passes, etc. Yet the ever-present topic of "Johnson versus Marshall" was never far away. It was a discussion Johnson preferred to avoid.

That is, unless it centered on the goals both he and Marshall share.

"We're trying to the best quarterbacks in college football," Johnson said. "Together, we're going to lead our team to a national championship."

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