Playing in seven games last season with a start coming in the opener against Arkansas because of a suspension to Marshall, Johnson completed 28-37 passes for 437 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions a season ago.
The majority of that came in just one half against the Razorbacks. Playing only the first 30 minutes before Marshall came on in relief, Johnson torched Arkansas for 243 yards and a pair of scores while completing 12 of 16 attempts. That performance is something Johnson said he plans to build on, beginning this spring as he fights for a job.
“It helped me a lot,” Johnson said. “ It gave me a lot of confidence, mainly in that first game last season knowing I could go out and be able to play against an SEC team and play the way I did because people say I didn’t play nobody when I was a freshman. As you can see the first game went well and that just gave me more confidence. I believe that I can play against anybody.”
Faced with the task of finding a new identity on offense with a different quarterback, Coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee already have a feel for what Johnson can do, something that will help them moving forward. Malzahn said it’s also big that Johnson has some experience under his belt and understands the schemes, coaches and system as well.
“I think the experience factor of just the overall offense first of all,” Malzahn said. “Then you throw in the fact that the position coach and coordinator is back. The offense is the same. I think that’s got to help. I think he has a very good understanding. I would say he’s thinking like coaches, it’s got to help, no doubt.”
Johnson was helped by getting some time at quarterback as a freshman in Auburn’s run to the SEC Championship title and BCS title game. In six appearances he completed 29-41 passes for 422 yards and six touchdowns with a pair of interceptions. Getting a start against Western Carolina he completed 17-21 for 201 yards and four scores in a huge victory.
Johnson runs for yardage against Western Carolina
The passing totals are there already for Johnson, but his ability to run the ball and become a threat on the ground is still in question. That’s something that the Carver-Montgomery standout didn’t really show in high school until his senior season and while Malzahn said it’s not a necessity in the offense, Johnson said he’s ready to show that he can do that as well.
With Sean White coming off a redshirt season, he’ll have a chance to hit the ground running this spring while newcomers Jason Smith and Tyler Queen have to adjust to a new offensive system right away. The ability to run is something Smith definitely brings to the table after his season as a starter at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Athletic and fast, he has improved his arm strength since his days at McGill-Toolen in Mobile and this spring he’ll have the opportunity to show what he can do.
While all three will get their reps, it would be a huge upset if someone other than Johnson wins the job heading into the Louisville game this fall. Taking on the role of a leader for the Tigers already and knowing it’s part of the duty of being the quarterback, Johnson said he’s got several goals in mind as the spring gets underway.
“My specific goal this spring is to win the starting job first and then become a leader and build team chemistry,” Johnson said. “This is a new team, new players, new coaching staff. I'm looking forward to bringing everybody in to where if I say we're going to move right, the whole team moves right. That's the type of leader I'm trying to become for this team.
“Being a quarterback you have to be that leader to where your teammates are going to follow you no matter what,” he added. “I got to be able to look to the right of me and be able to say, can I trust this person? That's what we're trying to get as a team, as a unit and we've all got high standards for each other. It's going to be fun.
If he can win the job the next goal is a big one. Already with a taste of what it feels like to play for it all, Johnson said he’s excited about getting his opportunity and pushing for a championship is all that’s on his mind.
“Yes, it feels great,” Johnson said. “Like I said, I'm just trying to become a leader first to where my team can follow me but mainly my goal is to win a national championship, to be honest with you.”