AUBURN, Ala. — After his fantastic first-half performance against Arkansas last Saturday, it's going to be hard for Auburn to keep Jeremy Johnson off the field this season.
The sophomore handled the pressure of his first career start against an SEC opponent and threw for 246 yards against Arkansas. He showed poise and precision in the pocket by completing his first eight passes, including a 62-yard strike to new wide receiver D'haquille Williams.
Johnson then gave way to returning starter Nick Marshall, who did not start the season opener as part of his punishment for a marijuana citation earlier in the summer. Marshall will start this Saturday in Auburn's home game against Mountain West foe San Jose State.
And, despite his impressive half-hour of work against the Razorbacks, Johnson said he is completely fine with that.
"Nick is our starting quarterback, and that's it," Johnson said after Saturday's game. "He's the starter, and he's going to start the rest of this season. Whenever I'm called upon to come in, to do what I have to do, I'm going to make it happen."
So how can Auburn implement Johnson in its high-powered offense now that Marshall has served his suspension? Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have repeatedly said the Montgomery, Ala. native will have more responsibility this season.
"Nick is still the quarterback, but Jeremy will have a role," Malzahn said after the Arkansas win. "We talked in the offseason about giving him more of different situations and packages."
But what will that role look like?
More preset package plays? Entire drives for Johnson while Marshall waits on the sideline?
When Auburn ran Johnson in special package plays, the results were far from outstanding. Outside of the extended playing time against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, Johnson was only 2-of-4 passing for 29 yards.
How about playing the two dynamic quarterbacks together?
While Auburn will most likely give Johnson more first-team snaps after his season-opening outing, there is enough room on the field and more than enough creativity in Gus Malzahn's mind for the Tigers to run some plays with both Johnson and Marshall.
Malzahn has tried plays featuring two quarterbacks—one starter and one former starter—on a few occasions during his time as the Tigers offensive coordinator.
In 2009, against Louisiana Tech, quarterback Chris Todd faked a handoff to running back Ben Tate on a zone read, then flipped the ball to former starting quarterback (and later Malzahn assistant coach) Kodi Burns, who overthrew a pass to tight end Tommy Trott.
A formation like this one, with Marshall lined up as a slot receiver, could give the Auburn offense a deadly new "quadruple option."
Johnson would run a normal zone read with any one of the Tigers running backs: Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, Peyton Barber or Roc Thomas.
He would then have the option to flip it to the sprinting Marshall, who could take off for a long run or throw the ball late, like he did in this now-famous game-tying touchdown against Alabama last season.
That type of play off a read option, known as a "pop pass" (play-option pass), could also be tweaked with a two-quarterback backfield.
Of the examples in this column, this one might be the furthest stretch to see in a Malzahn offense. However, this type of look has had success at other schools, most notably Louisiana-Monroe.
Todd Berry's Warhawks came close to defeating Baylor in a ridiculously fun 45-41 shootout two seasons ago. In the clip below, starter Kolton Browning and backup Cody Wells throw off the Baylor defense by sharing the backfield for a couple of plays.
Wells first handed off to the left-handed Browning, who rolled to the left side to hit a wide-open receiver. On the next play, the roles were reversed, and Wells threw off a zone-read handoff for a bigger gain downfield.
Before the Warhawks could get their next play off with the two quarterbacks, Baylor called a timeout to straighten itself out, to the delight of the ULM sideline and fans.
With two players established at running and throwing off the read option—although Johnson didn't register a single run against Arkansas, he said his opening touchdown pass to Melvin Ray was off a designed run—defenses facing Auburn would have to face a ULM-like option that could either be:
- A fake to Marshall and a keeper for Johnson.
- A fake to Marshall and a pop pass from Johnson.
- A give to Marshall for a run.
- A give to Marshall and a pop pass from Marshall.
The third and final example would also be taken from a formation familiar to Malzahn's playbook: the Wildcat.
The Tigers rolled out the familiar, unbalanced set last Saturday against Arkansas with former high school quarterback and now-senior wide receiver Quan Bray taking the shotgun snaps. Auburn went with the "WildCAP" formation, ran by Artis-Payne, early in the 2013 season before Marshall's zone-read game took over.
Auburn has several weapons it can use in the Wildcat formation, as detailed by AL.com's Brandon Marcello in his Tuesday story on Bray:
Malzahn has shown a penchant for recruiting receivers and running backs who also handled some quarterback duties in high school. Five receivers and one tight end—C.J. Uzomah, Marcus Davis, Stanton Truitt, Quan Bray, Ricardo Louis and Bray—played some quarterback in high school.
If Malzahn lines up one of the quarterbacks on the outside, he could have another Wildcat candidate with the other, who would have more experience throwing the ball against collegiate defenses than the receivers.
Two quarterbacks in the Wildcat would open up the door for more standard passes to the other wideouts, double passes and maybe a throwback to Burns-to-Newton from the 2010 Ole Miss game.
Of course, none of these suggested sets would become the focus of Auburn's offense. When you have one of the most effective attacks in college football, the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" rings true.
But with Malzahn's tendency to sometimes run out-of-the-box plays in order to keep the defense off-balance and dial up a quick touchdown, there is always a chance fans could see some two-quarterback formations this fall.
Last Saturday proved the Tigers have not one, but two signal-callers who will shine when given the chance.
Instead of keeping one dynamic quarterback on the field while the other goes to work, why not double the trouble for opposing defenses?
Call a few plays for both and keep everybody guessing. It's the Malzahn way.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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