Former Central High star Jonathan Wallace plays first game as Auburn's starting quarterback today

AUBURN, Ala. -- Well-wishers were all around Michelle Wallace, and she wasn't sure why.

"Congratulations, Mrs. Wallace!" "Good luck on Saturday!" "How can I get tickets, Mrs. Wallace?" were among the compliments lavished on the Central High School secretary in the halls Tuesday afternoon.

Unbeknownst to Wallace, her son Jonathan had been thrust into the public eye around lunchtime. He was named Auburn's next starting quarterback.

Michelle Wallace took a moment to reflect: what a year it has been for her family and for her youngest son.

He switched his verbal pledge from Southern Miss to Central Florida in January, a couple of weeks before national signing day. The Wallace family was dressed in UCF colors on the big day, but Auburn had swooped in the day before with a last-minute offer, which Jonathan accepted.

He set foot on the Auburn campus, a half-hour from home, with coaches hinting in preseason camp he was making a quiet push for the starting gig. He watched the first few games, a presumed redshirt, before being asked to run a specific offensive package against defending SEC champion LSU on national television.

He played sporadically until last week when he played the second half against Texas A&M.

And now we're here.

Starting quarterback for your Auburn Tigers, a true freshman out of Phenix City, No. 12, Jonathan Wallace.

It all comes full circle today at 12:30 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium on homecoming weekend against New Mexico State. If he keeps the job, say hello to Georgia and Alabama later this month.

What a year.

"We were happy for him because we knew Auburn has always been in his heart," Michelle recalls of her son's commitment. "Now he has the opportunity to show he has the capability of being a young man who can start at this early age."

Michelle Wallace works at Central in the guidance counseling office, which is fitting, because for 24 years, her other full-time job has been mother to four children, guiding them with the same lessons.

"You do the right things," she said. "People are always watching you, no matter where you are. People look up to you, so you have to be true to yourself, because you never know who's looking, you never know who's listening.

"It's a process we have instilled in our children. That's something you must teach a child -- you don't wait until they're grown. It's something he learned from my husband (Anthony) and I. He learned from watching -- we don't only teach it, you have to live it."

The stage is Jonathan's today, for two reasons.

One, his precocious abilities which shocked his teammates and coaches going back to all four years on Central's varsity squad.

"Jonathan is a different guy, man. He's got that special God-given 'It' factor," said his confidant and Central offensive coordinator Ryan Nelson. "Whatever you want to call it, the kid has always had 'It.' He understands his work, on the field, off the field, and he's only going to get better with it."

Echoed Auburn tailback Tre Mason, "He has 'It.' We don't know what 'It' is, but it's something not a lot of people have. He came in ready to go. It seems like he's done this before, like he has the mindset of a senior who's been here a while."

But it also goes back to the hardships of being an SEC quarterback. Michelle Wallace is cognizant of Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley going quickly from beloved to booed when they didn't succeed earlier this season.

"When people put you on a pedestal, and when you fall off of that pedestal, you've got to know that not everybody is going to be 100 percent behind you," she said. "There are some people that are Auburn fans that are not Auburn fans -- some of them are Auburn followers. Either you're for Auburn or you're not. Either you're for Jonathan, or you're not for Jonathan. Either you're for Kiehl Frazier, or you're not for them. Those two guys can't help that they got hurt.

"We hear the crowd booing, we hear all this stuff, and we know we already prepared for when Jonathan makes a mistake," Michelle Wallace continued. "That's why it doesn't bother him, because he already knows. He's got that mindset."

Head coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler have raved about Jonathan Wallace's intangibles, but also choose to temper expectations out of the gate.

"Saturday, he will not be perfect. That will not occur," Loeffler said. "He's a true freshman who needs to improve in a lot of areas you're going to make mistakes. However, you try like heck to make sure you don't become a repeat offender."

In many ways, Wallace, who is the first Bi-City player to start at quarterback for a Southeastern Conference team since Hardaway's Wayne Johnson started for Georgia in the mid-1980s, could be perceived as a savior of a program gone wayward since winning a national championship 22 months ago.

Wallace has insisted his goal is to control what he can, which is his on-field play beginning this afternoon.

"It would be stupid to think an 18-year-old kid can zone everything out," Nelson said. "He's going to obviously think about it, because your team is 1-7 and looking for a spark in you.

"But I think the best thing about Jonathan is when the lights come on, he's ready to go because he's prepared himself all week and ever since he's been at Auburn.