AUBURN, Ala. — As Jonathan Wallace prepares for his final season at Auburn, his career highlights remain intertwined with the team's worst campaign of the new millennium.
Three years ago, the former Central star signal-caller started the final four games of the season, posting a 2-2 record. The wins came against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. The losses were a bit more notable: Georgia and Alabama. In sum, Wallace appeared in nine games (including those four aforementioned starts), completing 57.5 percent (46-for-80) of his attempts for 720 yards and four touchdowns. He added another 200 yards on the ground via 51 carries.
But all that's remembered about that season was Auburn's final record: 3-9.
So if the Tigers' youngest players are blissfully unaware of Wallace's efforts during that trying season, that suits him just fine.
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"Those guys were worried about their high school careers and doing what they've done. That’s not something I walk around and boast about," he said. "It was a 3-9 year. It wasn't a very successful year. That’s not something I go around and talk about. ... That’s probably how I've gained some respect from guys — for just how I handled that year."
He's earned every bit as much — if not more — admiration for his attitude the past two years. Since the dismal 2012 season, Wallace's playing time has fallen significantly.
That descent began during fall camp in 2013. Already unable to separate himself from Kiehl Frazier during spring practice that year, things didn't get any better for Wallace when signees Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson joined the fray in August. What began as a four-way battle to become the starting quarterback eventually became three, as Frazier dropped out of the race to move to safety. When the pecking order was finally settled, Wallace was at the bottom, behind both of the newcomers.
And that's where he's stayed for the better part of two seasons. He saw action in just five games during the run to the SEC title in 2013, throwing only four passes. Last season, he actually played in more games (seven) yet somehow threw even less (one attempt) than he did the previous year.
"Through those hard times, I've been able to learn a lot about myself. I've definitely been able to find out how to push through hard times, adversity, trials and tribulations," he said. "I've been able to find out how to work through those hard times even though things aren't going my way. It’s been a learning experience. It’s just life. You’re going to go through hard times. You have to figure out how to work through those hard times."
And Wallace found his solution in a position change. Late last season, he began to transition to receiver, registering one catch for 18 yards versus Samford. Though admittedly still a work in progress, Wallace has been pleasantly surprised with himself.
"I wasn't really sure how things would roll over, but I've been able to really see how athletic I am," he said. (Receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig has done a really good job of coaching me up and just teaching me some fundamental things. I’m working on my technique every single day."
This spring, Craig said he's seen "great strides" from Wallace. It's a stark contrast to when Wallace first took part in the receivers meetings last year, as Craig acknowledged he didn't think it would be easy for Wallace to get up to speed midstream.
But in the time between the Outback Bowl and the beginning of spring practice, Wallace had begun to develop a receiver's mentality.
"Wallace is very determined," Craig said. "He’s done an outstanding job and he’s worked really hard in practice, he pays attention, is very attentive. ... He just has to develop that physical toughness that you have to develop as far on the edge, perimeter blocking, sticking your nose in there against 230-pound linebackers. If he can consistently do that, he can help us win some games this year.”
Wallace knows the deck is stacked against him, though. At this point, he's fighting for snaps off the bench more than a starting job. And he's still looking for other ways to contribute. That's why he's involved in so many of the Tigers' special teams units, from punt return to kick return to punt coverage.
"In the fall, I’m going to continue to take advantage of each and every day and work to get better," he said. "If that chance comes, I’m going to take advantage of it."
Despite the unconventional path he's traversed at Auburn, Wallace hasn't given up hope on playing in the NFL. Sure, it might be a long shot. But Craig isn't ready to bet against him.
"I told him, 'I’m not closing the door on (you) playing outside after you leave here. If you can be a great technician, have a great understanding, understand leverages and catch the football, you got a chance to play beyond Auburn,'" the coach said. "It may not be in the NFL, but there’s a lot of professional football out there. You just have to give guys hope and give them something to shoot toward and I think that he has the ability to do some great things in the future.”
Realistically, that will come as a coach. From the moment he started playing football, it's been a lifelong dream for Wallace. As is commonplace for those who go into coaching, Wallace said his objective is to pass on his knowledge to the next generation, and more importantly, help them grow as people.
"That’s something that Coach (Gus) Malzahn and this entire coaching staff has inspired me a lot to want to do because they do a great job at it," adding that it's a topic he discusses with them often. "But the focus right now is this team and what I’m doing in this year. That’s down the road."
When that day comes, Craig believes Wallace will excel. Every quality you look for in a coach, Craig said, is there.
Leadership skills. A remarkable ability to communicate. An innate grasp of the game. And the type of charismatic personality that people are drawn to instantly.
"They gravitate toward him, and that’s where it starts being a coach: You have to be able to communicate," Craig said. "If you do that, you can be a successful coach and be able to motivate people. I think he’s able to do that."
Who knows how this fall will unfold for Wallace? Or where he goes once he's played his final game for the Tigers? But Wallace is ready for whatever may come his way.
It's already been quite a ride.
"I've found out how to be a great teammate — encouraging guys, lifting them up, helping them on and off the field," he said. "Being a practice guy. Whether helping out with the offense on scout team or whatever it may be. ... I want to be a team player and do what I can for this team. It’s been a great journey, I’d say."