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Niziolek: Auburn confidence in shaky quarterback situation is necessary posturing

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn's Sean White (13) hands off to Peyton Barber (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark.
Auburn's Sean White (13) hands off to Peyton Barber (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arkansas, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark. AP Photo

It sure sounds like Jeremy Johnson is going to get the start at quarterback Saturday against Georgia.

From everything Auburn coaches have said about the situation, as vague as they’ve tried to be, it’s clear that Sean White isn’t 100 percent.

Whether it’s the redshirt freshman’s left knee or a separate injury isn’t as apparent, but his return to practice this week has been limited. Coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wouldn’t even say if White took first team reps.

The situation feels similar when Malzahn opened up competition at quarterback during the bye week, and tried to keep the winner of that battle a secret until kickoff at Kentucky.

Georgia coach Mark Richt isn’t waiting for Auburn to provide any answers. He’s having his defense prepare as if both of the Tigers’ quarterbacks will play.

White and Johnson rotated at quarterback against Ole Miss with White taking the majority of the snaps. Malzahn went to Johnson on certain read-option run plays, and when White needed his knee brace adjusted.

If the quarterbacks were to split time Saturday the game plan will probably be reversed with Johnson as Auburn’s primary option.   

Johnson’s success against Texas A&M was the culmination of two months worth of work by the coaching staff to rehabilitate the junior’s confidence; and confidence remains the name of the game.

It’s no coincidence that Malzahn used the word seven times in referring to Auburn’s quarterback situation during his weekly press conference Tuesday.

Johnson is only a viable option at the position if he maintains the poise he had completing nine straight against the Aggies out of the gate.

Malzahn said Johnson has his “edge” back, but fans witnessed a steady decline confidence over the first three weeks of the season. Johnson didn’t face much adversity against Texas A&M with Auburn jumping out to an early 14-3.

Johnson played a key role in helping the Tigers establish that lead, but what if he throws an early interception against Georgia? Or the offense stalls, and fans sound off with some boos?

While Auburn’s quarterbacks have similar playing styles, no one has ever questioned White’s confidence. It’s one of the main differences between the two players.

“He believes in himself more than anyone else can, or ever will,” Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson said, of White earlier this season. “That’s the positive thing about him. When he steps on the field, he knows he is a great quarterback.”

The comments are in stark contrast to the ones Johnson made in his postgame press conference Saturday describing his struggles with lofty preseason expectations.

Those preseason expectations are long gone, but no one in Jordan-Hare Stadium this going to settle for an average performance in one of the Tigers’ most meaningful games of the year.

The burden of being a starting quarterback at a school like Auburn is a heavy one, and Johnson still has to prove he can thrive with his team, and 83,000-plus fans on his back.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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