Please excuse the delay in counting down the days to kickoff. With the somber mood as we mourn the loss of the Brambletts, I did not feel it appropriate to continue to look forward to this fall. Besides, I couldn’t stomach writing anything Auburn-related the last few days. If you’ll allow me to speak from the heart, however, I’d just like to say that despite another dark day among several these last few months in the Auburn community, the outpouring of love and support for the Bramblett family and friends has been awe-inspiring. I never had the good fortune of meeting Rod or Paula aside from a quick War Eagle after a game in the student section, but the couple left their mark on Auburn, and it has shown. Godspeed and War Eagle.
Sunday would have been 97 days until kickoff, so let’s continue our march down the list of top Auburn recruits with one of the most hyped backup quarterbacks of all-time.
Auburn was looking for it’s next Cam Newton, and Jeremy Johnson was going to be the guy. That was the sell to Auburn fans, at least, when after a 2011 season that saw essentially no identity at quarterback, Coach Chizik and staff secured the commitment of the Carver senior. During Johnson’s sophomore and junior years combined, he threw for over 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns, and completed 62% of his passes. Carver’s offense wasn’t showcasing him as a dual-threat quarterback, but with his size and athleticism (he was a standout basketball player, too!), it was just a matter of time until he broke into the SEC.
But, things did not go according to plan. During the downfall of the year-we-must-not-speak, Johnson was having his best year yet. He threw for nearly 3,200 yards and for 31 touchdowns, and added over 700 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground. He really looked like the next Cam Newton! But for a time, the real question was if Auburn could hang on to him. The standout had commented on Twitter that he was only committed to Coach Chizik and receivers coach Trooper Taylor, and it looked more and more likely every day that those two men would not be on the coaching staff at Auburn going forward.
Ultimately, the coaching staff was axed after the 2012 Iron Bowl. Despite his previous warnings, however, he never decommitted from Auburn, and signed with the Tigers on signing day with Malzahn and co.
The previous season was a disaster, and a statement needed to be made at quarterback. Malzahn opened up the job to a four-man competition, hoping someone would stand out and take the job. Would it be one of the incumbents from 2012, Kiehl Fraizer or Jonathan Wallace? Possibly JUCO transfer and former UGA corner Nick Marshall? Or, as most fans were hoping for, would freshman Jeremy Johnson step up and show the world what he could do?
I will admit I was in the camp of Jeremy Johnson winning the job in 2013, based solely on my uninformed opinion as an 18 year old. Maybe I bought into the “next Cam Newton” talk that seemed everywhere, maybe I was just ready for a hard reboot of the Auburn offense. Nevertheless, it was Nick Marshall who ended up winning the job - and I think that worked out okay.
Johnson would carve out his role as the clear backup and heir to the quarterback throne in Auburn the next two years. As a freshman, he started a game against WCU and played most of another game against FAU after Marshall had a lingering shoulder injury. Regardless of the vastly inferior opponents, Johnson started winning the fanbase over in these games with several beautiful long touchdown passes. In those two games, Johnson was 27-37 with 393 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, as well as 7 rushes for 48 yards. I mean, just look at this pass to Ricardo Louis...
You sure couldn’t tell me to care that it was against Western Carolina. 2014 was more of the same for Johnson. As a sophomore, he even got the start for the season opener against Arkansas due to Marshall serving a half-game suspension. This was the game that would prop him up as a can’t-miss prospect - in the first ever Saturday game for the new SEC Network, Jeremy Johnson went 12-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns AGAINST AN SEC TEAM.
Even the ball boy could’ve been catching these touchdown passes. Auburn continued to play great with Marshall back, but at this point Johnson was the talk of the country. He would be used sparingly the rest of the season - 16-21, 193 yards, 1 touchdown in 5 games, but the legend surrounding the rising junior was built, fair or not. Particularly after the way the 2014 season ended, with losses to Texas A&M, UGA, Alabama, and Wisconsin, the entire Auburn fanbase was excited about the next season.
But it wasn’t meant to be. 2015 started off with a tenuous at best win over 31-24 win over Louisville, where the Tigers and Johnson started hot out of the gates, but forgot how to play football and almost let a freshman quarterback by the name of Lamar Jackson steal the game. Johnson’s three interceptions were worrisome, but perhaps it could be chalked up to nerves?
Not so. The next week, Auburn needed overtime and a bunch of luck to beat FCS Jacksonville State, and Johnson once again endangered the Tigers with two interceptions. After a pounding at the hands of LSU the next week, Johnson lost the starting job to a spicy Sean White, and his and Auburn fans’ dreams were dashed before September was over.
Johnson would get the job back when White went down in the Ole Miss later that season, but it was a November from hell watching the Auburn offense try and make anything work. Though the Tigers stole a 26-10 win over #25 Texas A&M in College Station, that was more a result of Jovon Robinson and Daniel Carlson breaking out and having great games. In 2015, the year that was supposed to see Auburn back in the national title hunt with Heisman-contender Jeremy Johnson, Johnson went 95-157 and threw for 1053 yards and 10 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, as well as rushing for 137 yards and 6 touchdowns. If you looked hard enough, you could still see incredible arm talent, but it was clear as day the junior had a hard time with pressure and reading coverages.
In 2016, things weren’t much better. Johnson was a part of the rotating quarterbacks strategy against eventual national champion Clemson, and he wouldn’t see the field again outside of the last three games of the year against Alabama A&M, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
Johnson’s career numbers don’t tell the whole story of his time at Auburn. Over his four years, he completed 63.5% of his passes for 2,223 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, along with 210 yards on the ground and 9 touchdowns. Just looking at that, you might be forgiven for thinking he had one solid season, or a nice career as a backup. But the true story of Jeremy Johnson is one of expectations - from fans and from the media, both on a local and national scale.
The Jeremy Johnson saga has gone down as the darkest mark against Gus Malzahn in his time at Auburn, whether fair or not, largely due to said expectations. There were deeper-seeded issues in the 2015 and 2016 football teams, but the failure of Jeremy Johnson to live up to idiotically high expectations (that HE didn’t publicly set out for himself!) is the core of the “Gus can’t develop talent” argument. Ultimately, it’s a humbling reminder of how tough it is to predict and rely on 18-21 year old men.
Up next, we have another quarterback! Unlike Johnson, he never really got his chance to shine, but it was more a circumstance of a legend taking over on the Plains.