HOOVER, Ala. — Jeremy Johnson had to laugh at the question.
“We haven’t really seen it. I assume you can run?” a reporter asked Auburn’s junior quarterback Monday at SEC Media Days. The question was offered partially in jest. But it also gave Johnson a chance to offer some clues as to how Auburn’s offense will look in 2015, and those clues have been in short supply because coach Gus Malzahn would rather keep that information shrouded in mystery.
“Coach Malzahn had no reason to make me run. … A lot of people who haven’t seen me run, they might be a little surprised,” Johnson said. “The people who did, won’t. Whatever the defense gives us, we’re going to take.”
If Johnson is correct and his ability to run the ball at Auburn looks anything like his running style at Carver High in Montgomery, Ala., then the talk of Johnson—who has started two games in his college career—as a Heisman Trophy candidate might not be so ludicrous. Jameis Winston generated Heisman buzz in 2013 before he ever started a college game, so it isn’t completely crazy to expect big things from Johnson, who has looked more polished than most of the SEC’s passers in his limited appearances.
And if that buzz isn’t premature, then it also isn’t insane that the Tigers would be the trendy pick in the SEC West, where the margin between No. 1 and No. 7 seems thinner than ever. Auburn lost four of five to end last season as its defense fell apart, but the Tigers hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp—who has yet to coach a bad defense—to oversee that side of the ball. It likely will improve. So the Tigers could have a better defense, talented receivers, a veteran offensive line and the top-ranked juco transfer tailback in the nation (Jovon Robinson). If the quarterback is special? The ceiling is limitless.
The 6’5”, 240-pound Johnson has a sturdy frame, but this seems like an awful lot to lay atop a quarterback with 78 collegiate pass attempts to his name. But what if it isn’t? What if Johnson is as special as Malzahn thinks he is?
In the limited snaps we’ve seen, we know Johnson can throw. When he replaced a suspended Nick Marshall in last year’s season opener against Arkansas and completed 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns in the first half, Johnson looked like a two-year starter. And as the Razorbacks revealed themselves through the season to be far stingier than expected—they shut out LSU and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks in November—Johnson’s performance kept looking better.
But in an offense that had been built around Marshall’s ability to run, Johnson didn’t carry once in that game. When Johnson subbed for an injured Marshall in a 2013 start against Western Carolina, he carried three times for 26 yards. But that was Western Carolina.
Auburn’s offense will almost certainly change with Johnson at the controls. He has a better arm than Marshall and throws a prettier ball. In 2013, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee changed Auburn’s fortunes by recasting the Tigers as a run-first squad that capitalized on Marshall’s preternatural ability to execute the read-option. After Malzahn and Lashlee revamped the offense following the 2013 LSU game, Auburn ran the ball 73.3 percent of the time over the next 23 games. That percentage will fall with Johnson throwing to targets such as Duke Williams and Ricardo Louis, but Malzahn hinted Monday that it might not fall as much as much as originally expected.
“We're going to have the same offensive philosophy and the foundation every year, but we are going to build the offense around the quarterback's strengths,” Malzahn said. “Nick Marshall was one of the better zone-read quarterbacks in recent history. Jeremy has the ability. He can flat out throw it. He can make every throw that you ask him to do, but he's a better runner than people think. We didn't ask him to run the past couple of years, but he's a big, athletic guy. He probably runs a 4.6 [second 40-yard dash]. So he will allow us to call all of our offense.”
Gus Malzahn with access to the entirety of his offense should make opposing defensive coordinators quake, but once again, Johnson has to prove he can unlock the entire playbook. If he can, then he sounds an awful lot like another guy who once piloted Malzahn’s offense in Auburn. But Johnson would like to stop everyone right there. "Cam is Cam, and not me,” Johnson said Monday. “I don't compare myself to Cam that much."
Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to a national title in 2010 because of a rare blend of size, arm and speed. The thought of another quarterback with so much in his toolbox coming so soon after Newton left seems preposterous, but take a look at Johnson in high school.
(We’ll pause here to allow the NFL draftniks to gather themselves. Yes, you saw a 6’5”, 240-pound quarterback who took some of his snaps under center in high school. In this respect, Jeremy Johnson is basically a unicorn.)
Auburn High obviously isn’t LSU, but Johnson will get his chance against those Tigers soon. The SEC isn’t shy about scheduling key conference games early, and Auburn plays in Baton Rouge on Sept. 19. The Tigers open against a reloading Louisville—which probably will provide a stiffer challenge for Muschamp’s defense—and then face FCS Jacksonville State before a date with Les Miles’s squad. Johnson knows that game will set the tone for the entire conference season. “I feel like the LSU game is going to define our year, define what we have on our team,” Johnson said.
That could be the game all the hype for Johnson finally goes poof. Or it could be when Johnson proves himself worthy of the off-season excitement. He has waited two seasons for this moment, and for that Malzahn is thankful. “He could have started for the majority of the teams [in college football],” Malzahn said. Instead, Johnson remained patient. And now he’s starting for Auburn with unreasonable expectations that he just might have the skill set to fulfill. “Now I can release everything that I had inside of me while I was sitting,” Johnson said.