Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn raised some eyebrows two weeks ago, when the first-year head coach burned true freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson's redshirt in a rather meaningless game against Western Carolina, after starter Nick Marshall injured his knee late against Ole Miss.
It turns out that was a wise move.
Johnson entered Saturday night's 45-10 win over Florida Atlantic early in the second quarter, when Marshall injured his shoulder on a sack by Robinson Eugene. Johnson played well in Marshall's absence, completing 11 of 17 passes for 196 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Marshall should be OK, according to Auburn play-by-play man Rod Bramblett, courtesy of The War Eagle Reader:
Bramblett on Marshall: "Should be OK, we understand."— The War Eagle Reader (@wareaglereader) October 27, 2013
That's good news for the Tigers, because Marshall is the unquestioned starter. But Malzahn's decision to get Johnson ready as Marshall's primary backup when it didn't make a ton of sense to the outside world has already proven to pay big dividends for these Tigers, and will for Malzahn's future teams.
Marshall puts himself in harm's way simply by the way he plays. It's unavoidable.
If you're Malzahn, you run that risk when you make Marshall such an important piece of the offense as a runner and a passer.
Sure, he can run around defenders and leave them in the dust, but he isn't afraid to lower his shoulder as he did midway through the first quarter when he sent an Owls defender five yards out of bounds instead of stepping out himself.
Malzahn recognized this once the season started, and burning Johnson's redshirt allowed the coaching staff to develop the perfect insurance policy for the Tigers.
Johnson earned the right to be in consideration for the primary backup role with his play during fall camp. Once Marshall went down, the timing of the Western Carolina game allowed Malzahn to get Johnson valuable game experience as a starter in a tune-up game so that he wouldn't be a deer in headlights if called into action at the drop of a hat.
That experience versus Western Carolina paid off on Saturday, because it was clear that he has confidence in himself and the playbook from the moment he stepped foot on the field. He hit Sammie Coates for a 36-yard touchdown on his first snap of the game and never looked back.
In his limited playing time, Johnson has proved why he was such a highly touted prospect coming out of Carver High School in Montgomery, Ala. He threw for 201 yards and four touchdowns in his first action of the season two weeks ago against the Catamounts and came out firing out of the bullpen on Saturday.
Auburn suddenly has depth at quarterback, and with a creative mind like Malzahn calling the plays, options are gold.
Johnson's emergence not only as a caretaker, but also as a difference-maker is not only big for the present, but also for Auburn's future.
Now Malzahn has stability at quarterback in the years to come, which is a departure from the norm for Auburn, which has had seven different starting quarterbacks to start the season over the last seven seasons.
Marshall is a junior, and even if he stays healthy from here on out, Malzahn knows he has a solid quarterback to take the reins either in a pinch or as a permanent replacement.
Johnson is the real deal, and while Malzahn took some heat for burning Johnson's redshirt earlier in the season, it could go down as one of the best decisions he's made during his short tenure as Auburn's head coach.
It already has paid off this season, and will in the years to come as Johnson becomes more of a factor in the offense.
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