Jeremy Johnson started the 2014 season as Auburn's starting quarterback due to the suspended Nick Marshall. He began the game 8/8. He finished 12/16 with 243 yards. That was in one half. The hype machine that began with his performances against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic in 2013 was officially off and running.
I'll never forget how many times the gentleman behind me lamented all through the 2014 season that Nick Marshall was playing quarterback instead of Jeremy Johnson. Any time there was an incomplete pass, he would say "I don't know why Malzahn isn't playing Johnson." I truly wish I sat in front of him this season, as well, just so I could ask him if he missed Marshall, yet.
The hype around Jeremy Johnson before the 2015 season hit a fever pitch as he was listed an early candidate to watch for the Heisman and other preseason awards. Everyone would finally see Gus Malzahn's full offensive playbook unleashed with a QB who possessed an NFL-caliber arm. Sure, the loss of a truly mobile QB might hurt, but the passing game would ensure running lanes were kept open. One would make up for the loss of the other!
Auburn's first drive went off without a hitch. Granted, it was only 26 yards, but still. Hand off to Roc for a few yards. Beautiful back-shoulder throw to the outside to Louis. Another run by Roc that was stuffed. A Duke Williams slant thrown with authority to the 1. Jeremy Johnson kept it on the outside as the entire Louisville defense bit on the running back and he just walked in for the touchdown. Auburn's offense was off to the races!
A funny thing happened on the way to the end of the game, though. Jeremy Johnson threw three interceptions. After a very promising first half, there were signs of trouble. There were optimistic signs, too. He threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Jason Smith that was called back. He threw another good pass to Ricardo Louis. However, we were wondering even then if there was reason for concern.
The Jacksonville State game didn't get any better. LSU was horrific. During the broadcast and after the infamous ball-slip fumble, CBS pointed out that Johnson tried gloves and then Lashlee took them away saying that it was all mental. Johnson just needed to get his head right and he'd be back in full form. While he did look a bit improved in the second half with a long touchdown run and a touchdown pass to Duke Williams, he never did look like he was in complete control.
The Jeremy Johnson hype machine, already derailing, ended at LSU. Sean White started Week 4 against Mississippi State.
How Was Everyone So Wrong?
Jeremy Johnson looked magnificent in every previous appearance. He looked like the type of quarterback Auburn fans dreamed of having. There were horribly unfair comparisons to Cam Newton prior to the season. I argued he only needed to be Jason Campbell, not a Heisman candidate on the level of Cam Newton.
From speaking to some who were able to observe him at practices and in scrimmages, he looked just as good leading up to the Louisville game. Were there some accuracy issues? Sure. There weren't the signs of bad reads and decisions, though. At least not that I've been told. I remember reading that while Sean White was pushing him, Johnson never showed a reason why he shouldn't keep the starting job he'd earned over the previous two seasons as a backup.
Did Auburn's coaches not test him enough? Maybe. Maybe they didn't throw everything they could at him. Maybe never getting hit in practice made him skittish once hits started coming in the games. Maybe he just mentally couldn't handle the pressure of full game speed.
I'll be the first to admit my lack of knowledge on football details, but I can tell you that the Jeremy Johnson I saw in the first half of Arkansas 2014 looked nothing like the Jeremy Johnson we saw in 2015. That leads me to believe that there was just something that made the pressure too much this year. Maybe it was having it all on him. In 2013 and 2014 he knew Nick Marshall was the starter, so he played loose and had fun.
I don't know that we'll ever truly know what went wrong this season with Jeremy Johnson. People have commented on his footwork and his mechanics and use that to say Gus and Rhett aren't very good at developing a QB. That very well could be the case. If it is, it's very troubling for Auburn's future.
When Things Went Wrong, What Was The Plan?
I don't think there was one. This is a definite knock on the coaching staff. After all of the hype, no one expected the QB situation to go south in the manner that it did, but it was always a possibility with a QB who never had the full weight of responsibility on him, before. Could it go wrong? Yes, it absolute could, and it did.
Gus Malzahn likes having a number of elite quarterbacks on his roster at all times. There were three highly recruited QBs on the 2015 roster. Four if you count Jason Smith, though he wasn't highly recruited as a QB. There's just one problem: aside from the known starter, one was a redshirt freshman who had never seen any collegiate action and the other was redshirting after having knee surgery and was unavailable.
Losing Johnson to injury was always a possibility due to the nature of Malzahn's offense. No one expected Johnson to run for 1,000 yards (even though he claimed that was his goal), but a running QB is always at risk of injury. The only QB with real experience after him, though, was Jonathan Wallace, who converted to WR before going back to be 3rd string QB. With that possibility, there definitely needed to be a plan in mind for Sean White.
During Sean White's first drive, it looked like he had the whole playbook open to him. After he threw the interception near the endzone, suddenly that changed. He wasn't asked to do much in the nature of downfield passing again until the Kentucky game. Maybe they didn't want to risk his confidence, too. I'm probably assuming too much about what White was allowed to do on that first drive just because he threw a few downfield passes, but it really appeared to me that the plan changed with the INT.
The Sean White Games
Sean White was perfectly serviceable against Mississippi State and San Jose State. Redzone play calling against Mississippi State was part of the issue in that game, and he wasn't asked to do much in the way of throwing the football against San Jose State.
It's been said before, and I've repeated it numerous times: when he has a brand new QB, it takes Gus Malzahn 2-3 games to really figure out what they do best in live game situations. It happened that way with Cam and Nick in 2010 and 2013. Sean White is another example.
Against Kentucky and Arkansas, you finally saw an expanded playbook. It really started to open against Arkansas, as Sean White played a masterful game that was hindered by a lot of very key drops on very catchable balls.
Unbeknownst to Auburn fans, though, during the overtime against the Hawgs, White suffered a knee injury. He still started against Ole Miss, but he was obviously not the same. He couldn't step into throws. He wasn't mobile. The Sean White who was beginning to look like a great QB was gone.
Had White remained healthy, I think Auburn defeats Ole Miss and Georgia, and has a very real chance at Alabama. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, though.
If you want to know why I still believe White is capable of being Auburn's starter in 2016, go back and check out those two articles by WarRoom Eagle I linked just above. He has all the tools needed. While people say he's small, he's really only short at 6'0. He's 200 lbs, which is not a bad size, at all. It's 15-20 lbs heavier than John Franklin III, and you can bet Franklin will run more and take more of a beating if he gets the job.
With White hurt, the playbook that was beginning to open slowly closed for the rest of the season. Jeremy Johnson was announced as the starter for the trip to College Station since White's knee needed time to heal.
In the first two drives of the game, both leading to touchdowns, Jeremy Johnson looked in complete control of the offense. He wasn't asked to do too much, and what he did do, he did very well. The A&M game as a whole was an excellent performance; albeit against a very weak defense.
The Georgia game was a bit different, but the UGA defense is a much tougher animal than A&M's. Johnson did have the one bad interception, but that looked to be an overthrow more than a bad read, to me.
His performances during the later part of the season were much better than the first part of the season. His decision making wasn't anywhere near as bad; in fact, I would say it was actually pretty good with the exception of some notable lapses (just toss the ball on a Hail Mary, please) using purely my memory. The only issue became accuracy on some of the downfield passes. He also wasn't helped out by wide receivers dropping some key passes, either.
In the bowl game, Jeremy Johnson came in during the second half after White struggled. It's important to note that while White threw two really bad passes, he also threw a few really good ones, too. The ESPN headline says that "Johnson lifts Auburn past Memphis." That's a bit misleading, though. He threw one pass (a screen for a TD) and ran the ball three times. Two of those were power draws, one for a 17 yard gain and one for a 6 yard TD. Otherwise he handed the ball off. Still, though, he did very well in his time in the game.
Johnson's return to the starting lineup featured two wins and two losses. He didn't make much in the way of bad decisions, but he was never asked to run the full playbook like he was in the early-going.
The One Thing No One Expected To Happen, Did Happen
Attrition in the offseason? Sure, that's a worry, particularly when you lose a QB as dynamic as Nick Marshall. NFL-caliber arm, though! Cam Newton size! Fantastic previous performances!
I'm sure there are those who doubted Jeremy Johnson. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought he would struggle in the manner that he did, though. And when that happened, Auburn had to adjust to Sean White. When he got hurt, Auburn had to go back to Johnson or try Jonathan Wallace or Jason Smith.
Why did Auburn never try Jason Smith? That's a question that deserves asking. Most of the players on the team were familiar with a running QB from 2014, so I don't think it would have been too much of an adjustment to go to. Maybe I'm wrong, though. The offensive line and H-backs were very different. Perhaps they changed some of the ways they worked, and it would have been a drastic change to go back.
Gus Malzahn has a history of winning no matter whether he has a running QB or not. The QB just needs to be a threat to keep it for a few yards on occasion, not be a home run threat. I think he really did want to open up the passing game more, and unfortunately it didn't work this season because of the struggles at QB.
It's obvious to see that Gus is going back to relying on a dual threat QB, though. The QB recruits he's bringing in over the next three cycles (Woody Barrett, Lowell Narcisse, Joey Gatewood) are all top-rated dual-threats. It's not like he didn't try last cycle, either, as Auburn recruiter Kyler Murray (who landed at Texas A&M and now going to Oklahoma) and Lamar Jackson (the Louisville QB).
Auburn's offensive issues in 2015 begin and end here, though. Without good QB play, there is no Hurry Up. Without the Hurry Up, Gus Malzahn's offense struggles. We saw it in 2011. We saw it 2015.
Will it get fixed? I'm betting it will. Malzahn has a history of being a great offensive coach. He'll find an answer. It may be Franklin, it may be White or Johnson, it may be someone we know nothing about, yet.
The QB play was something no one thought would go wrong in 2015. However, with a brand new starter it is definitely something that COULD go wrong, and, in the Season of Murphy, it did.