Throughout college football, coaches have been mesmerizing us with the quarterback shell game.
It is all the rage. Step right up as the hustlers set up shop outside their closed practices and begin madly moving their quarterbacks all around the depth chart. Whether because of lack of confidence in their contenders or out of some primal need to sew confusion, programs have treated the simple question of who will start behind center as another of the great imponderables of the universe.
Why, Bobby Petrino, that sly fox, this week listed four co-starters at the most important position in advance of Louisville’s opener with Auburn on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. (The common belief is that it will be Reggie Bonnafor’s job).
Let the rest of them play their games. Louisville’s opponent has no need for them, as Auburn promotes the most heralded backup quarterback in the SEC for its opener in Atlanta.
No smoke. No mirrors. No sleight of hand. Jeremy Johnson is the Tigers’ man.
There actually is some comfort in establishing a starter early in the proceedings, you know. Some would even say that’s an advantage.
“It has been good that we’ve known who our starting quarterback was going to be since spring,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It has been good for him, too, and his teammates.”
“We feel like (Johnson’s) prepared,” Malzahn said. “I know he’s to the point that he’s tired of everybody talking about him, making predictions. He just wants to get out there and play. He wants to prove himself. I think he’s in a very good spot mentally going into his first game.”
Technically, this is not Johnson’s first game. He even started the opener last year — and all he did was complete his first eight passes against Arkansas and throw for 243 yards and two touchdowns while Nick Marshall served a one-half suspension.
He has been this large, some would say Cam Newton-sized figure in the background for two seasons. In teasing, tempting appearances — sometimes for no more than one play in a game — the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson showed himself a gifted thrower. His career numbers speak great promises: 57-of-78, 858 yards, nine touchdowns, only two interceptions.
But, as Malzahn said, “There’s nothing like it being your team, when you know you’re going to start for the whole season.”
A main reason the Tigers secured a No. 6 preseason ranking, Johnson is a different wrinkle for the quarterback whisperer Malzahn.
For one, he is of drastically different dimensions and skill set than the shifty Marshall, who went to Jacksonville, undrafted, trying to make it in the NFL as a cornerback. They say that Johnson can do some damage with his legs, but, really, Malzahn will best deploy him as more the classic passer.
As Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis told the media earlier this season, “I’ve seen him make some throws that I’ve never seen any quarterback make, right on the money every time. He’s consistent. That’s what makes him better than most of the quarterbacks I’ve seen.” Such a talent does not need to be hoofing it up and down the field.
For another, Johnson is a rarity for Malzahn, a starting quarterback who has had two years of aging while waiting his turn. As a result, he just may be handing over his offense to a player more highly polished than the norm.
Johnson “really thinks like (quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee) does, as far as even game-planning, what we look for,” Malzahn said. “One more year of experience that comes with thinking exactly how your coaches think — I think there’s great power in that.
“He knows offense well enough, knows personnel around him well enough that he can have ownership in the game plan. That’s the biggest difference between him and a first-year starter.”
To date, Johnson’s story has been one of patience. About how a one-time Mr. Alabama Football from Montgomery — and darn near a Mr. Basketball, too — bided his time while Marshall, the outcast from Georgia, the community-college transfer, ran the show. Large talent and great patience do not usually coexist. But Johnson did not publicly kvetch, regardless of whatever the voices in his ear may have been.
“The time passed quickly,” he said this week. “I’m happy. I feel really good where I’m at, where this team is at. I’m just ready to play Saturday and give everybody what they’ve been waiting for.”
The stage for his debut as Auburn’s main man will befit a major occasion. Under the big top of the Georgia Dome, Johnson begins his reign (and there he designs to return in three months for the SEC Championship game). “I will love it. I will love everywhere I play,” he said. “I know the majority is going to be our fans so I feel really comfortable.”
Now comes the part where Johnson has to justify the hype and show that as well as the body he possesses those intangibles that make a quarterback when it’s fourth quarter, fourth down, and you’re down by six. His has stared into the building spotlight since spring, one that so many other coaches have been loath to shine on that particular position.
The pressures probably will be very much the same for whomever Louisville deploys at quarterback, assuming the Cardinals use one. Best of luck as well to that mystery man.