Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn stood before the press Saturday afternoon, fielding questions not about his team's 62-3 homecoming win over Western Carolina but about his quarterbacks.
The Tigers started true freshman Jeremy Johnson Saturday afternoon, with junior quarterback Nick Marshall out with an apparent knee injury—tossing away any possibility for Johnson to redshirt this season.
Moments into the press conference, Malzahn set the record straight.
"I want to make this clear: Nick Marshall is our starting quarterback," Malzahn said. "When Nick is 100 percent, he will be back. We feel very good about Jeremy, and it was great to get him some in-game experience."
Malzahn announced Thursday evening that Johnson would start in Marshall's place instead of usual backup Jonathan Wallace, who had been listed behind Marshall on the Tigers' two-deep depth chart all season.
For his part, Johnson made a strong debut. He finished 17-of-21 for 201 yards, four touchdowns and an interception through two quarters and change before being pulled with the rest of the starters midway through the third quarter.
"It was great and I enjoyed every bit of it," Johnson said. "You never know when the opportunity comes, and I just prayed overnight and stayed focused. I want to give all the praise to my teammates and God."
Johnson was a highly touted 4-star quarterback prospect coming out of Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama. Johnson signed with the Tigers in the spring. He arrived on campus midway through the summer.
The freshman's four-touchdown performance was tied for second-most in Auburn school history in a quarterback's career debut.
"I thought Jeremy did a solid job," Malzahn said. "I think he made some good decisions early. The line protected him extremely well. He's been playing very well in practice, and that carried over today."
Johnson played in place of Marshall, who came up with an apparent right knee injury towards the end of the Tigers' victory over Ole Miss last week. Marshall was in pads and even warmed up with the team Saturday, sporting a knee brace on the sideline, but he did not see any action.
"Nick is our starting quarterback, and that's the bottom line," Malzahn said. "At the same time, Jeremy will help this team win the rest of the season."
The decision to burn Johnson's redshirt and give him live-game experience Saturday led the media to question Marshall's status moving forward, including Auburn's game at Texas A&M next week—and whether Johnson was getting the start against Western Carolina in anticipation of the freshman being thrown into fire at Kyle Field a week later.
"We wanted to rest him and make sure he is 100 percent," Malzahn said when asked if Marshall would be back in time to play the Aggies. "We're hoping so. We'll see where he's at (Sunday) and Tuesday in practice."
If the Tigers are forced to start Johnson in a week in College Station, Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne—who led the Tigers with 133 rushing yards and a touchdown on just seven carries Saturday—says that his teammates are confident in the freshman's ability to lead the offense.
"We're definitely confident in Jeremy," Artis-Payne said. "He can do pretty (well) out there, so we're pretty confident in Jeremy. We've seen him every day in practice and see the things that he can do, so our confidence level in him is pretty high."
Marshall was active on the Tigers' sideline Saturday, assisting Johnson when he returned to the bench after drives, and later, doing the same for Wallace after he went into the game in the third quarter.
"They all group together and work together, no matter what," senior fullback Jay Prosch said of the quarterbacks. "So they're always coaching each other up, saying, 'You can do this better.' It's always good to get an out-of-the-play point of view. So they're always working together. It's like they're a little team."
One of the strongest aspects of Malzahn's offense has been Marshall's ability to run. Marshall rushed for 140 yards and two touchdown on 14 carries in the Tigers' upset win over Ole Miss.
Johnson finished Saturday with 26 yards on three carries. He rushed for 705 yards and and seven scores as a senior at Carver-Montgomery last year.
"I'm real confident in his ability," junior running back Tre Mason said. "He knows exactly what to do.
"It's really not much different. Both of those guys, they're good on their feet. They both can throw the ball well, and they can both execute the offense."
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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