AUBURN, Ala. — Jeremy Johnson made his first career start look easy. His second one, if it happens, might be a bit tougher.
Depending on the health of starting quarterback Nick Marshall, Johnson may once again get the call to take the field with Auburn’s first-team offense when it travels to Fayetteville, Ark., this Saturday to take on Arkansas.
And if that comes to pass, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said he would be fine with it.
“We’re confident in Jeremy and Jeremy’s a very good quarterback,” Malzahn said following the Tigers’ 45-10 victory over Florida Atlantic. “He’s got some good experience now, but we’ll see.”
The Razorbacks would provide a much stiffer challenge for Johnson than his first start; aside from it being on the road, Johnson had the opportunity to start against hapless Southern Conference opponent Western Carolina on Oct. 12. The true freshman showed no first-game jitters, though, as Johnson completed 17 of his 21 attempts for 201 yards and four touchdowns. That performance went on to earn him SEC freshman of the week honors.
What it didn’t earn him was the starting job. Malzahn reiterated that whenever Marshall regained his health, he would return to the starting lineup — which he did the week after the Western Carolina contest, leading the Tigers to an upset victory over Texas A&M. Even though he was still No. 2 on the depth chart, Johnson’s play versus the Catamounts garnered him the unquestioned respect of his teammates, and more importantly, the coaching staff, as it promised to create packages for him to take the field in certain situations, even while Marshall was still the starter.
But Johnson got more action than he expected on Saturday. After Marshall went down in the second quarter versus Florida Atlantic, Johnson came in and immediately announced his presence, throwing a 36-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates on his first play from scrimmage. Johnson finished the game 10-for-16 for 192 yards, including another touchdown toss to Coates before the end of the first half.
How much did the plays he ran differ from the packages the coaching staff had designed for him?
Johnson said it was nearly a carbon copy of the offense’s game plan against Western Carolina.
“Coach Malzahn pretty much ran the same plays that I’m really good at,” he said, “and I just executed.”
Malzahn did acknowledge he had to make some minor alterations after Marshall left Saturday’s game, however. Johnson is a great runner, Malzahn said, but he’s no Marshall, who had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games (against Ole Miss and Texas A&M) and had 81 yards in the first quarter against Florida Atlantic before he departed.
“Jeremy can do it,” Malzahn said of the zone-read. “He’s a very good runner in his own right. He’s got long arms and does a good job, and it really doesn’t change that much from a play caller’s standpoint. Obviously Nick is electric with the ball, but Jeremy is not too far behind.”
Johnson himself admitted that zone-read game isn’t “his forte.”
“I’m pretty much a downhill runner,” he said. “But if I have to do (zone reads) to win, then I’ll do it.”
The Montgomery, Ala., native had no such worries about his ability on deep passes — his touch on the pair of scoring strikes to Coates proved that.
“We’re working on those every day at practice,” Johnson said. “We just wait and see (the defender’s) angle, and wherever their angle is, that’s where I put the ball.”
Malzahn refused to update Marshall’s status following the game. Auburn’s only comment was that the junior-caller had suffered a shoulder injury and that he was held out of the final three quarters of Saturday’s game as a preventative move. Though Marshall reportedly told teammates he was fine, that didn’t ease their concerns when they first saw him crumple to the ground.
It was especially jarring for those who are tasked to protect him on every play.
“First off you’re worried, because that’s your quarterback,” said Alex Kozan, Auburn’s starting left guard. “You don’t want to see him get hurt, or even touched. At the same time, we have a lot of confidence in Jeremy. He plays beyond his years; he doesn’t even look like a true freshman out there at all. With Jeremy we’re confident, but obviously, whenever your starting quarterback gets out of the game, that’s not a good thing.”
There’s no telling when Auburn might make an announcement about its starting quarterback situation. But if Johnson gets the nod, he assured he would be ready.
Starter or not, Johnson’s preparation never changes.
“If I get in, I get in,” he said. “If I don’t, I’m still just going to stay prepared and cheer the team on and play my role.”