AUBURN, Ala. — Of all the things Jeremy Johnson heard during his recruitment, only one thought truly stuck with him.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn repeatedly expressed his belief that Johnson would become the "future face" of the Tigers' football program.
Saturday, Johnson may have shown the future is now.
The true freshman looked like a experienced veteran in his first career start, and thanks to his near-flawless play and a dominant all-around performance from his teammates, Auburn cruised to a 62-3 victory over hapless Western Carolina en route to setting a school record with 712 yards of total offense.
"It was great. I enjoyed it," Johnson said after the game. "You never know when the opportunity is going to come. I just prayed overnight and stayed focused. I want to give all the credit to my team and God."
Johnson wouldn't be wrong to take credit for himself, though. He did as well as one could expect for someone taking the field for the first time as a collegian. He completed 17 of his 21 attempts for 201 yards and four touchdowns. No, the Montgomery, Ala., native wasn't perfect — he did throw one interception, after all. But otherwise, the strong-armed true freshman was spot-on with nearly every pass.
The performance came as no surprise to Malzahn, who said it was simply a carryover of what he's seen in practice since the season began.
"He’s been in the mix for a couple of weeks now and our starter was not 100 percent healthy," said Malzahn, alluding to the injured Nick Marshall. "We felt like it was a great time to get him in there. We feel like he’ll help us the rest of the season."
In fact, Johnson played well enough that the two-word phrase every coach dreads hearing — especially in the middle of a season — reared its head: "quarterback controversy." Perhaps sensing it would be dissected by media members, Malzahn went ahead and addressed it emphatically without prompting.
"I want to make this clear: Nick Marshall is our starting quarterback," he said. "When Nick is 100 percent, he will be back. The great thing is we feel very good about Jeremy and it was great to get him some in-game experience."
Johnson echoed Malzahn's thoughts, time and again reiterating that he was simply holding down the fort until Marshall returns.
"Everybody has got a role on this team," he said. "I’m playing my role. Nick is the starter and Nick is going to start from this point on. You never know what will happen. If anything happens, I know I’ll be ready because Coach keeps me prepared."
Johnson's play was evidence enough that he's ready to assume the reins as the full-time starter, regardless of how soon Marshall is cleared to play.
He started quickly, connecting on his first four passes, which included an 8-yard touchdown to Jay Prosch to push Auburn's lead to 14-0 less than five minutes into the contest. Johnson wasn't done in the first quarter, though, as he hit Ricardo Louis on a 46-yard strike to extend the Tigers' advantage to 21-3.
His only mistake came early in the second quarter. Given all the time he could possibly want to tuck the ball and run, he instead decided to loft the ball up in the air toward Louis. Severely underthrown, the pass was intercepted by Western Carolina's Fred Payne.
When allowed to explain what he saw on the play, Johnson absolved his receiver of any blame.
"Yeah, I was back there for a minute and I thought Ricardo was going to get a step on him," he said. "I actually thought he was going to go up and catch it. But in that situation, I should have just took off and run. "
But the first-year Tiger showed how little the lone miscue affected his psyche, as Johnson went on to toss two more touchdowns before he was taken out with 10:12 to play in the third period and Auburn leading 49-3.
Once Johnson was given the rest of the day off, the Tigers opted for an archly-conservative approach, as backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace threw only one time.
Though Johnson played a major part in the Tigers' blowout victory, he was far from the only participant. Auburn's running back trio of Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne combined for four touchdowns and 316 rushing yards on just 18 carries.
Auburn's familiar faces didn't get to have all the fun, though. Four different players (Prosch, Louis, Tony Stevens and Johnathan Ford) all scored their first career touchdowns in the Tigers' rout of the Catamounts.
Despite the record-breaking performance of the unit as a whole, there was no doubt whose star shined brightest. Not surprisingly, Johnson had to field multiple queries about what lies ahead.
Does he believe he should be the starter?
How is Marshall holding up? How helpful was the junior during this week's practice?
Time and again, Johnson refused to take the bait. For now, at least, he is still Marshall's backup. But he did acknowledge one thing: Saturday was a chance for him to showcase his skills.
In that endeavor, Johnson was convinced he passed with flying colors.
"It doesn’t matter what level I play on, I can play," he said. "To play football — God has blessed me with that ability. And that’s what I came to do today: to show that to the world."