AUBURN, Ala. — Jeremy Johnson is staying put and he’s here to win Auburn’s starting job — again.
Amid rumors he may transfer after spring practices, the Auburn quarterback said Saturday he plans to stay at Auburn, win the starting job again and have a season to remember. He wasn’t necessarily impressive in the A-Day game, throwing for 35 yards yards and one touchdown on 6-of-13 passing. He also showed some hesitation in the pocket and overthrew two receivers, but is still in the mix with Sean White and newcomer John Franklin III.
“Jeremy, obviously, has a wealth of experience dating back to his freshman year,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I’ve been really pleased with his progress this spring and the way he’s improved and stayed the course. To come back and earn his teammates trust and everything, has been really impressive.”
Johnson’s rise to the next big thing to his fall to the bench was fast last season. He impressed everyone with his 252-yard, two -touchdown performance in the first half against Arkansas in the 2014 season opener in place of suspended star Nick Marshall, but he didn’t live up to high expectations in the first three games as the full-time starter in 2015: He threw six picks to co-lead the nation in interceptions.
His subsequent benching defined his junior season, but he later supplanted White and led the Tigers to a win at Texas A&M when the redshirt freshman injured his leg. Johnson was benched again when White recovered from injury in time for the Birmingham Bowl.
That rollercoaster season could mentally destroy any player. Johnson said he is stronger by weeding out the bad seeds in his inner circle.
“It’s about separating the ones you can trust from the ones you can’t trust,” Johnson said. “Again, like I tell people all the time, life is about obstacles. You’re going to go through it. I went through it. I haven’t been starting for three years. That was my first year starting. It happened. I have my confidence back and now I feel even better about where I’m at as a person and as a player because your character and how you handle things, take you a long way. I feel like I’m in a good spot.”
Why he should be the starter
Johnson threw six interceptions in the first three games as Auburn’s starter, but bounced back and threw only one interception the remainder of the season. He scored two touchdowns in the Birmingham Bowl as a red-zone, change-of-pace quarterback behind White, which may have helped his confidence. There’s no doubt Johnson has the arm and talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, but it’s a matter of fixing his confidence and mental mistakes on the field.
“One of the things I think Jeremy has done a good job of improving is playing in the pocket with stuff around him,” Lashlee said. “When a guard gets knocked back in your face, you get a free run, you’re standing and delivering the ball and taking a hit. … “I feel like he’s grown up a lot in that area and he can play from the pocket when things aren’t perfect and still deliver to the right guy. That’s what we’ve worked on the most.”
Johnson is the biggest quarterback on the roster, at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and his arm strength is something to consider as the Tigers move into the offseason and preseason camp in August. Johnson also said his footwork has improved, which would be a big development, especially with Franklin facing big issues with his own footwork.
Why he shouldn’t be the starter
His tendency to stare down receivers continues. Sometimes it works, other times it backfires (just look at the six picks in the first three weeks last season). He stared down Roc Thomas in the A-Day game, but that throw at least resulted in a touchdown and not a turnover. One also has to consider his confidence. At times he seems calm under pressure, and other times he is immediately bothered — whether it’s on the field or in interview settings.
Some will say Johnson had his opportunities over the last three-plus years to earn the trust of his coaches, and while coach Gus Malzahn believed he had something special this time last season, the early signs of struggles popped up on the field, even in the A-Day game in 2015. It might be time to move on and build toward the future with White or Franklin taking the reins, while also paving the way for the development of freshman Woody Barrett in August.
“You’ve got to be able to handle it, but a kid that had a couple of spotty times playing and one half of football he played extremely well (Arkansas in 2015) and it elevated everything. Sometimes what gets lost in that is when you’re a backup and you have a chance to come in and start one game here and there, that’s different than when you’re the guy. It just is. But at the same time, a guy like Jeremy takes a lot of blame last year when there’s 10 other guys on the field with him. The first few games he turned the ball over and after that he stopped. It’s not always that one guy, but like I tell those guys, the quarterback probably gets too much credit when we win and too much blame when we lose. That’s just the nature of that job and you’ve got to be able to accept that.”
— Rhett Lashlee, offensive coordinator