AUBURN, Ala. — How does a 20-year-old student react when told he is a Heisman contender before playing a single college game as the first-team quarterback? How does he handle the pressure?
No one knows how Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson felt when he arrived at SEC Media Days a year ago and was asked questions about leading the Tigers to a national title, winning a Heisman Trophy and being compared to legend Cam Newton.
He smiled and seemed happy to be at center stage in July, but the pre-season talk was only that. The man had to prove it on the field. He knew it and what followed was perhaps the most noticeable head-turning performance in the country early in the 2015 season.
When the season began, Johnson struggled from the first snap. He threw five interceptions in the first two games. A sixth pick happened in Week 3 in a blowout loss at LSU and the Tigers nearly lost to an FCS team in Week 2. He was then benched in favor of a redshirt freshman in Week 4.
But it was a moment along the sideline in the second quarter against LSU that caught the attention of the CBS broadcast crew and served as the canary in the Auburn coal mine for the remainder of the season.
Following a strange fumble when he reared back to throw the football, Johnson trotted to the sideline and put a glove on his hand. The heat and humidity had made his hands slippery and he felt the only way to correct the problem was by using a glove. Not much changed, however, on the two drives following the addition to his wardrobe. HIs throws were high and off target.
Jogging back to the sideline, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee confronted his struggling quarterback. He grabbed the glove on Johnson’s right hand, ripped it off and threw it behind the bench, according to CBS Sports sideline reporter Allie LaForce.
“You don’t need this glove,” Lashlee said, according to LaForce. “You need to figure it out mentally.”
Lashlee downplayed the exchange when asked later by reporters. Johnson, at the time, said he was OK if he was benched in post-game interviews. The confident quarterback facing and welcoming the hype at SEC Media Days was long gone. Only a downtrodden quarterback, soon to lose his starting job, remained.
How did he fall so hard, so quickly? Was it all mental? Was it physical?
“Probably some of both,” Lashlee said at the time.
It’s hard to discern what happens inside the mind of a football player, but one thing is certain: The quarterback position is the most stressful on the field. Big-time programs across the country look for every edge possible to win games and that quest in recent years has stretched into mental health. Sports psychologists are now commonplace at SEC schools, including Auburn. They deal with the on-the-field aspect for student-athletes, sure, but they also handle the mental stress caused by schoolwork and every-day life as a teenager.
What we’ve learned is important on the field and courts of competition, said Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist in Alabama.
“We know the inches between the ears are the difference between the yards on the football field,” he said.
McCabe labels competitors as one of three animals: a possum, armadillo or fox. The possum plays dead when the pressure hits. The armadillo looks mean and tough, but rolls up in a ball and uses his armor (his talent) to deflect the pressure. The fox is a cunning, extreme beast that will do anything to win — and does so by also turning down the volume around him to focus on one single thing: each play, moment by moment.
The great athletes know how to turn down the sound without balling up in the fetal position, McCabe says. They know how to slow things down and they often do it by simplifying everything around them.
“The quarterback tried to put on some gloves, and now he’s going to some fix versus embracing where he’s at,” McCabe said. “It’s a tough environment, no doubt, but that’s not the time for us to raise up the volume and change more and more things. What he needs to do every time that happens is learn how to control the volume yourself. Is sounds so silly: Take a few deep breaths and the coaches need to give him some high-percentage plays to get their momentum going again.”
Many players look like armadillos. “They look great and fantastic in practice, but under pressure the armadillo rolls up in a ball and tries to use the armor as protection,” McCabe said.
In the moment of a game, Auburn’s approach with players is simple: positive reinforcement. It’s a practice that echoes the approach of McCabe and many sports psychologists.
“Hey, if you’re in the middle of a game and we just threw one of the worst interceptions you could have ever thrown, chewing a young man out right then really doesn’t help anything for the next play,” Lashlee said. “The interception happened, it’s over, you want to positively affect them and get through the game. We can handle the interception and the problems of that on Sunday as opposed to when you’re in practice and fall camp or spring.
“[Practice] is when you really have to always have the pressure up, but when you really have to demand it is in spring ball, when they’re on their own in the summers and fall camp. Then you’re just fine tuning in the season and you’re just coaching the details of the game plan and the scenarios. I’m a firm believer you press them hard in practice and when they get to game day, game day is theirs. They have to cut loose and play. They need [to know somebody] is in their corner on game day more than anything.”
Auburn’s staff includes one sports psychologist and the university is in the process of hiring a second person, athletics director Jay Jacobs said. Auburn declined SEC Country’s request to speak to staff psychologist Shawn Zeplin for this story.
Sports psychology has become an important issue for the NCAA in recent years. There’s more to a sports psychologist’s job than figuring out what bothers a player on the field. These players are kids and students, after all, and they can break down mentally from classwork, life away from home and peer pressure as much as they could in front of 100,000 screaming fans on a Saturday night.
The NCAA has taken notice, too, and released a handbook on sports psychology. Sports psychology, the study found, “evolved more slowly” than the needs of players and students through the years.
“Student-athletes, coaches and staff tend to minimize mental disorders or psychological distress because of the expectations of strength, stability and ‘mental toughness’ inherent in the sports culture,” according to the study provided by the Sport Science Institute.
Quarterbacks and players are kids. Some are in their 20s, sure, but they have yet to hold a full-time job or hold adult responsibilities outside of a well-structured environment such as those provided by an SEC football program. Meanwhile, these kids often turn to social media looking for validation and instead see the good as well as the bad of people. They hear praise and wrath from fans every single day.
Jacobs points specifically to the vicious messages Alabama kicker Adam Griffith received after missing a field goal that led to the Kick Six victory for Auburn in the 2013 Iron Bowl.
“People can say that they shouldn’t let that bother them, but that bothers any man,” Jacobs said. “When you have thousands of people saying things that aren’t nice about you, it bothers people.
“We’re going to provide — and we have — the best environment for our student-athletes to get through those things. The fact of the matter is that’s how life is as well. As sad as it is, it is preparing them for life. It is. I’d rather [them] not go through it, but if they’re going to go through it, I’d rather them go through it where we can provide the resources where they can get through it. It is a challenging subject. And it’s not just in athletics, it is the student population, it is the population of young people today. They’re all searching and they’re trying to find their identity.”
That brings us back to Jeremy Johnson, who has mostly removed himself from social media. Still, he surely heard the criticism in 2015 and admitted as much in the spring. He was built up as the next big thing in college football for two years backing up Nick Marshall. Johnson instead struggled as a junior (10 touchdowns, seven interceptions), was benched for several games and now he enters his senior season battling three other quarterbacks for the right to be Auburn’s starter.
What it takes to be an elite quarterback such as Marshall, who led Auburn to an SEC title in 2013, is the ability to have a singular focus. Those players are the foxes as McCabe describes. Examples last season include Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen and the defensive line and linebackers at Alabama.
Johnson fell more into the role of an armadillo, McCabe said.
The expectations heaped on Johnson’s shoulders in 2015 were “unrealistic,” Lashlee said. But Johnson fought through the struggles and came back to lead Auburn to a road victory at Texas A&M when Sean White was sidelined with a knee injury in the latter third of the season. White took over as the starter again in the Birmingham Bowl.
There’s still hope Johnson can live up to expectations and the senior is still fighting to be the face of the program. Many freshman receivers in the spring and summer said the quarterback from whom they heard the most was Johnson, who was helping them get ready for life as a college football player.
Whether Johnson gets a second chance as the starter this season remains to be seen. Somewhere, Auburn believes, a fox is waiting to come out of its hole — but it might not be Johnson.
“Jeremy has gone through a very difficult year,” Lashlee said. “For anybody to go through as much as this young man, I think the way he’s been able to handle it has been impressive. It will be something that bodes well for his future in whatever he’s doing because it’s tough when you have all this outside pressure.”