AUBURN, Ala. — Jeremy Johnson had been sitting in a crowd of reporters for a few minutes after Auburn’s win on Saturday night when he felt a light tap on the top of his head.
Johnson looked up and realized it hadn’t been an accidental graze from a camera man, but Montravius Adams trying to get his attention. The 6-foot-4 defensive lineman didn’t say a word, but pointed at Johnson before making his way across the room to his own crowd of people.
It was yet another nod of respect Johnson received throughout the evening and a reflection of how his final performance in Jordan-Hare Stadium unfolded.
“It meant a lot. I enjoyed playing with my teammates,” Johnson said. “They played hard for me today and all week. They were right behind me. They told me they got me and I told them I had them. I’m going to miss it, I’m going to miss being around them.”
In his first start of the season, and his first since the 2015 Iron Bowl, Johnson led the Tigers to a 55-0 rout of Alabama A&M.
“We are very proud of Jeremy,” coach Gus Malzahn said after the win. “He did an excellent job. He was really efficient in throwing the football and did a really good job leading the offense.”
The Montgomery, Ala., native was honored on the field during the pregame senior night festivities and minutes later ignited the Auburn offense on its initial drive of the night.
The quarterback opened the game by completing an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Darius Slayton. A few plays later, Johnson dashed 7 yards into the end zone, putting the Tigers up 7-0.
At the end of the next drive, Johnson found Kyle Davis in the right corner of the end zone on a 14-yard strike, tossing the true freshman his second career touchdown pass.
Johnson was 14 of 19 passing for 147 passing yards, adding 2 other scores on the ground. And for most of the night, when it appeared Johnson would make a play, loud applause broke out through the stadium.
“It was huge. This whole week has been about him really,” sophomore Kerryon Johnson said. “It’s his senior day, but it’s a little more special for him. He’s been through a lot of adversity, a lot of ups and downs, and for him to come out one last time in this stadium and have a performance like that, I think that’s going out on a high note.”
It was a well-deserved finale after a couple of tumultuous years on the Plains.
Johnson was expected to take over Nick Marshall’s place in the pocket in 2015. As the season opener approached, the junior’s name was often mentioned in preseason Heisman conversation while Auburn had a No. 6 ranking in the national polls.
But things didn’t go as planned. Johnson was benched after a Week 3 loss to LSU, moving redshirt freshman Sean White into the starting role. When White suffered a knee injury against Arkansas, Johnson took over again, starting the final four games of the regular season.
This fall was disappointing as well. Johnson battled White and junior college transfer John Franklin III for the starting job, but played only sparingly when Malzahn rotated three quarterbacks in the Tigers’ season-opening loss to Clemson.
Still, Johnson remained upbeat and supportive. After the win, the senior explained he played his final home game for his teammates and road roommate White, even going as far as to call the sophomore his “blood brother.”
“It’s about those players in the locker room,” Johnson said. “They put in a lot of work and they led us this far. Sean led us this far. I played this game for him and my teammates… They know that I’d do anything for them, they’d do anything for me, always been behind me. I’ve always been able to talk to them, they never turned their back on me or looked at me in no kinda way after all that I’ve been through. I love those guys, I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss being around them.”
Yet Johnson’s leadership and experience is still needed. As Auburn prepares to travel to Tuscaloosa to play No. 1 Alabama, the senior is one of the few offensive players who has started in the Iron Bowl and understands what to expect.
“It’s a big game because we don’t have any NFL teams in Alabama so we’re all the NFL teams if you ask me,” Johnson said. “It’s a great game and those guys are going to feel it. The young guys are going to get their experience. It’s the biggest game in college football if you ask me, besides the national championship.”
Malzahn said the coaching staff would evaluate how healthy White is after several weeks of limited action and likely will name a starter later in the week.
Johnson remains confident if he’s called on against the Crimson Tide, he’ll be prepared — and he’ll have the same optimistic attitude he’s always possessed.
“There’s no fear in me nor the team,” Johnson said. “It’s just another game, another opportunity to shock the world. It’s football. You win some, you lose some. Things go your way and things don’t go your way — that’s how I look at life. It’s a great learning experience and it helped me become a better person and a better man.”