Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is going to sink or swim with Jeremy Johnson this season.
In the Tigers’ post-game press conference, the coach’s voice developed a slight edge when asked a variation of a question about his confidence in the quarterback for a third time.
“He’s our quarterback, and he’s going to be fine,” Malzahn said. “I will say it for the third time, I have to do a better job of helping him and we are going to do that.”
He didn’t even wait for a reporter to get out a query about backup Sean White before shaking his head.
“Jeremy Johnson’s our quarterback,” Malzahn said.
On Saturday, the Twittersphere was calling for Johnson’s job as it looked like the Tigers might fall victim to one of the biggest upsets in program history to FCS opponent Jacksonville St.
Johnson’s second interception against JSU helped the Gamecocks take a 20-13 fourth quarter lead. The junior didn’t see linebacker Dawson Wells dropping back in coverage on the play.
It was the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder’s fifth interception this season, the most a SEC quarterback has thrown in their first two games in seven years; a far cry from the way Johnson performed when he dazzled fans against Arkansas in the 2014 season-opener.
Secure in his position, Malzahn is comfortable ignoring any negative fallout from the 27-20 overtime win. The third-year head coach explained his confidence in Johnson earlier in the week.
“The thing about Jeremy, he's a great competitor and he's extremely tough on himself,” Malzahn said. “I think the special quarterbacks that I've been fortunate enough to be around, they're the same way.”
Malzahn praised a couple of Johnson’s throws, and decisions late in Saturday's game. He called the way the quarterback handled adversity late in the fourth quarter an important test.
“At the end of the game, when we needed him, he made plays for us,” Malzahn said.
Down 20-13, the defense forced a three-and-out to get the offense the ball back with 2:01 to go left in regulation. Johnson completed three of four passes for 19 yards including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray.
“We had some different reads there,” Malzahn said. “We’re trying to set it up and on the play before; the guy was really peaking. We felt like we had a chance and Jeremy made a really good throw. Melvin did a great job with the arm-over…That was a big play in the game.”
It’s those flashes that feed Malzahn’s belief Jackson will put it together sooner rather than later.
"There were a lot of ups and downs, but he had bright eyes and he wanted to lead our team..." Malzahn said. "We faced major adversity, and that will be good for us later on."