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Jeremy Johnson’s high school coach sees Auburn QB fighting, working to earn back team’s trust

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson warms up before the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.
Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson warms up before the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.

Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson didn’t have a whole lot to say about his future Saturday night following a 29-13 loss to Alabama.

“No comment,” Johnson said in responding to a question about transferring.

A season that started with Johnson’s name in the Heisman conversation ended with the Tigers’ fifth straight conference loss at home.

Johnson was benched four weeks into the season only to return to the starting lineup when his backup Sean White was injured. 

The junior played better in the second half of the season, but the offense still sputtered.

With Auburn looking to bring in at least two quarterbacks as part of its 2016 signing class — it has verbal commits from West Orange’s Woody Barrett and junior college transfer John Franklin III — the speculation about Johnson’s future started just as the Iron Bowl ended.

Despite the rocky 2015 season, Carver Montgomery High School coach Billy Gresham doesn’t expect his former quarterback to seek a quick exit from the program.

The two talked after the game Saturday and as of now Gresham believes Johnson will go into the New Year an Auburn Tiger. 

 “He’s willing to fight,” Gresham said. “He wants to see how it plays out in the spring and go from there. “

An Auburn guy

Gresham coached Johnson when the former Alabama Mr. Football verbally committed to Auburn as a junior at Carver Montgomery.

Johnson went on to throw for 3,193 yards and 31 touchdowns his senior season to become one of the top pro-style quarterback prospects in the Class of 2012.

The Montgomery native stayed committed to Auburn despite the school firing then coach Gene Chizik and heavy interest from rival SEC schools LSU and Ole Miss. 

Johnson’s long history with the program isn’t something Gresham can see Johnson turning his back on overnight.

“He’s invested so much of his time into Auburn,” Gresham said. “He waited a long time for his opportunity while other guys might have transferred. He loves his coaches and loves his teammates.”

Johnson will also earn his degree at the school in May. 

“He’s an Auburn guy,” Gresham said. “He’s going to get that degree and that’s something he and his family are really proud of.”

Trust issues

Johnson turned heads when he started the first game of 2014 against Arkansas for Nick Marshall.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. During his opportunity as Auburn’s full-time starter, Johnson never quite lived up to the promise he showed in his first career win. Johnson threw six interceptions in his first three starts while completing less than 60 percent of his passes.

Auburn’s offense struggled to move the ball downfield as it was almost upset by FCS opponent Jacksonville State at home and blown out on the road by LSU.

“He felt he let himself down and felt he let the team down,” Gresham said. “He didn’t play the way he wanted to play. He was part of the team not meeting its expectations.”

The coaching staff turned to Sean White, but Johnson returned to the lineup when the redshirt freshman suffered a left knee injury.

Johnson won his first start back against Texas A&M and started Auburn’s final four games.

While Johnson protected the ball better in his second stint under center, the offense still struggled scoring one touchdown in losses to Georgia and Alabama.

“Auburn always did a good job running the ball in the past, but they struggled at times and had to lean on Jeremy,” Gresham said. “I kind of compared the way he played to Brett Favre. He made some really great throws and got them that big touchdown, but he also had a tendency to make some mistakes.”

Gresham sensed a reluctance from both Johnson and the Auburn coaching staff to “trust their instincts.”

“They played conservative at times, but I can understand the coaching staff’s thinking,” Gresham said. “I think it was hard for them to let go some of the struggles Jeremy had especially with turnovers. They wanted to run the ball and rely on their defense.”

It will fall on Johnson’s shoulders to regain that trust if he expects to win the starting job next fall.

“He feels it’s still his job going into the offseason, but he has to gain their trust and I think he knows it’s going to take all the way until that first game (next year),” Gresham said. “It won’t be an overnight turnaround.”

Bright spirit

Johnson wasn’t just under fire from opposing defenses this season. The quarterback’s lackluster performance made him the target for heavy criticism throughout the 2015 season.

While Johnson never directly acknowledged the fan’s disappointment, he admits it was an all-around challenging season.

 “I learned a lot about my character,” Johnson said Saturday. “I just leave everything in God’s hands. It’s life. I have to get myself ready for life. Going through what I went through this year, I feel like I am mentally ready for whatever comes my way.”

Gresham doesn’t see his former player’s positive attitude changing anytime soon.

“He has a bright spirit,” Gresham said. “He’s not mad or upset. He understands he needs to play better. He’s going to go reflect on what happened, going to evaluate himself, see where he needs to get better and be a better leader.”

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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