There’s a curious backlash against the preseason pronouncements surrounding Jeremy Johnson.
Yes, we’ve lavished him with praise before he’s accomplished much of anything. I named Auburn’s quarterback as the SEC’s most likely Heisman Trophy winner this year. We also ranked Auburn’s overall quarterback personnel as the best in the SEC, and Johnson as the second-best quarterback and the 10th-best player entering the 2015 season.
Some SEC fans seem beside themselves that Johnson’s name can even be mentioned in the same sentence as Mississippi State’s All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott.
Most of the skepticism comes from the fact that Johnson only has started two games and has yet to throw his 100th college pass. How can we rate Johnson as the 10th-best player in the conference, much less a top-five quarterback ahead of more proven players like Kyle Allen and Joshua Dobbs?
First, Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Whether he runs a 4.51-second 40, as he self-reported, or in the 4.6 range, as coach Gus Malzahn has suggested, he’s pretty fast. From what we can tell, he’s not as powerful a runner as Cam Newton and not as elusive as Nick Marshall. But his raw athleticism means that the Tigers should still be able to execute the read option effectively, especially if he makes the correct reads.
He’s got a better — probably much better — arm than the former starter Marshall. If you haven’t noticed, when Auburn throws the ball, it throws deep on a disproportionate number of those targets. Within Malzahn’s system, Johnson likely will produce very good numbers.
Speaking of Malzahn, he’s got a tremendous track record with quarterbacks that extends beyond Newton and Marshall. But this is the first time he’s spent three years with a single college quarterback. Oh, and Johnson ran a very similar offense in high school. So it’s possible — likely, even — that he knows Malzahn’s offense better than any quarterback who has played for Malzhan. Johnson knows his offense very well and is in command of the team.
Malzahn, normally not very outspoken with the media, has come close to lavishing praise on Johnson, another telling sign. Here’s a snapshot about what the coach has said about Johnson (from AL.com):
“I’m comfortable, I’ll tell you that. I’m comfortable with him and I’m confident within him and the skills. I’ve got respect for him, and so do our coaches and players. Probably the way he handled the situation the last two years. He could have played for the majority of teams in college football. You never heard any stories about him wanting to transfer or being unhappy. He’s a great competitor, and the way he handled that, he has a lot of respect around this building.”
His performance last year against Arkansas was good enough that a segment of the fan base suggested the team should retain him as the starter ahead of Marshall. (Malzhan himself revealed that the coaches held almost-weekly discussions about inserting Johnson into the lineup more last year, but couldn’t bring themselves to yank Marshall — who nearly led them to a national title in 2013 — from the game.) Johnson may not have gone through a full SEC season, but to suggest he’s a complete unknown is taking it too far.
I don’t expect Johnson to perform at the level of a Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston. Not right away, at least. But neither of those quarterbacks had played a single college snap before torching everyone in their path for two of the most impressive quarterback seasons we’ve seen in the last decade. It’s not necessary to see an entire season to a) project Johnson will be very good and b) imagine that a first-year starter can perform well.
Malzahn has projected that this roster includes three future NFL receivers. The offensive line must replace Rimington Trophy winner Reese Dismukes at center, but Alex Kozan and Avery Young are All-SEC candidates. The defense also is expected to perform better and give the offense more opportunities.
All of those things put Johnson in a good situation and should allow his talent to show faster.
“Yeah, he definitely is (as good as the hype),” receiver Ricardo Louis said, according to Fox Sports. “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.”
Johnson will need more live game action to refine his potential. If he learns to read defenses and run through his progressions — and make all the throws under duress — he’ll be an NFL draft pick. Maybe even a high one in 2017. But he’s every bit deserving of the preseason buzz, and he should be a special player at Auburn.