The brave face Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson put on for reporters Saturday after a 45-21 loss to Baton Rouge was masking a few doubts.
Auburn coaches sensed the junior quarterback isn’t playing with the same level of confidence he had in his standout debut performance in last year’s season-opener against Arkansas.
“I would say confidence is one thing, there’s no doubt, but it’s a little bit of everything,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, following up on his decision to bench Johnson for backup Sean White on Wednesday’s weekly SEC conference call.
Despite three touchdowns, Johnson had the worst game of his career in a 45-21 loss to LSU. He threw an interception, fumbled, was sacked five times and looked unprepared to handle the hostile Baton Rouge crowd.
Johnson’s struggles came on the heels of lackluster performances in wins over Louisville and Jacksonville State.
“Anytime you make a quarterback change it’s extremely tough,” Malzahn said. “We are encouraging to keep working. We are expecting him to. He’s got a lot of champion in him.”
White practiced with the first team for the first time on Tuesday with Johnson taking all the second team reps.
“He practiced extremely well yesterday,” Malzahn said, of White. “He had good energy, good focus. His teammates really responded well to him.”
On the call, Malzahn revisited White’s performance during Auburn’s spring practice period. The Florida native displayed strong accuracy throughout, and continued to prove he had a grasp of the offense.
The head coach said it was a “pretty good battle” for the starting job in the middle of spring.
“Jeremy had the advantage of being in the offense for extended period of time,” Malzahn said. “We were still learning about Sean.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp gave a similar assessment of White’s performance back in March and April when he addressed the media Wednesday night.
“I don’t know when Gus named the starter in camp sometime but certainly there was competition going on from my perspective,” Muschamp said. “He was very productive and these players have a lot of confidence in. That’s as much as anything when you see the confidence the players have in him.”
Malzahn made sure to point out that the redshirt freshman isn’t going to run the offense with any kind of limited playbook.
“He can run our entire offense, so we feel comfortable calling anything,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a lot of reps the last two years too.”
With nothing on film of the quarterback, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen didn’t have much to say on the situation when appeared earlier on the same SEC conference call as Malzahn. He downplayed the notion it would impact his team’s defensive preparations.
“It doesn’t change our game plan at all really,” Mullen said. “I haven’t seen the other guy play.”