Jeremy Johnson ready for chance to shine for Auburn Tigers

HOOVER, Ala. -- As Jeremy Johnson strolls into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham, head held high and eyes steady, as a strong, orange-and-blue throng of Auburn fans scramble toward him on the first morning at SEC media days. Without breaking stride, Johnson glides toward them before reaching a green, SEC-labeled tape that separates him from the masses.

Adults and children eagerly stretch and squeeze their way to him, hands holding varying memorabilia for the junior quarterback to sign. In an almost robotic fashion, Johnson swiftly autographs object after object, barely leaving time to breathe or blink.

For five minutes, he works like an assembly line before he’s ushered away by Auburn officials toward a set of hotel elevators.

Auburn fans squirm to snap their final pictures of the new rock star in Alabama as the doors close.

“I’m not the only one ready to watch me play,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people back at home that are as well.”

The third of five children, Johnson grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, determined to shine. Whether it was battling with his older siblings or playing sports, Johnson had a competitive edge that helped him stand out.

He channeled that energy on the playing field, immersing himself in baseball, basketball and football. Johnson’s first love was basketball, but he tried his hand at football early on, too, around age 4.

Unfortunately for Johnson, there was one part of the game he wasn’t too thrilled with at first.

“He didn’t like it because he didn’t want anyone to hit him,” said Johnson’s stepmother, LaTasha Johnson.

Her son would quit almost daily and she would plead with his father, Ojedita Johnson, to pull him out of football. But to Ojedita, there was no quit in the Johnson family, only adjusting.

So Johnson pushed through, working everywhere on the field, trying to find a spot where he could get through his disdain for contact.

Eventually, he found quarterback, and almost immediately, the game clicked for him.

“There was always something special about Jeremy when he was growing up,” LaTasha Johnson said. “Anything he did, he just tried to be the best at it.”

LaTasha Johnson kept her children close, cautious of an outside world that had dragged down so many youths. She had her son transfer to Highland Avenue Elementary, where she worked when he was in the fourth grade, to keep a close eye on him and make sure he kept that respectful, disciplined attitude she instilled in him.

Johnson clung to his stepmother as soon as they came into each other’s lives when he was around 2.

“I’m all he knows,” LaTasha Johnson said. “He knew I wasn’t his biological mom, but as far as bonding, he bonded with me because he was so young.

“He has never felt like my stepchild.”

“Most kids have their moms in their lives,” Jeremy added. “I was unfortunate not to have my mom. I had my dad, and my stepmom came in and she treated me like her own.

“She created me … she always took care of me. She spoiled me; she spoils me to this day. She was always there for me.”

When LaTasha Johnson realized her son had a real future in football, she made sure some of his habits changed. Most importantly, his diet had to change.

“I didn’t know what to cook him, I just knew he didn’t need a lot of fast food or a lot of junk food,” she said with a laugh.

It paid off, as Johnson finished his high school career with more than 8,200 passing yards. He was named Alabama’s Mr. Football for 2012 after throwing for 3,193 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushing for 705 yards and seven scores as a senior.

He was even the runner-up for Mr. Basketball to Mississippi State wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson, earning offers from every SEC team except Kentucky after starring at all five positions on the court.

She also stayed on him about his outside attitude. Jeremy Johnson learned to stay grounded from his stepmother It’s still a balance he keeps to this day, as he transitions to life as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

“He’s a big kid at heart, but he knows that what he’s doing and what he’s going through now being the starting quarterback is a serious thing,” LaTasha Johnson said. “He needs that innocence as well because that will help him get through. Laughter helps him get through all the stress.”

Jeremy Johnson’s play got him to Auburn, but LaTasha Johnson’s guidance pushed him to greatness.

“I used to tell them, ‘You guys are going to be somebody … I’m not going to raise any thugs. I’m not going to raise any people of the street. You’re going to be an asset to the community, not a liability,’” she said.

Preseason accolades are predicting great things from Johnson, even if he has just two starts in 13 games on his resume. With every autograph seeker, more pressure piles up.

But Johnson blocks out the noise with an award-winning smile and a seasoned vet’s swagger. He isn’t worried about hype or expectations. He’s worried about leading his Tigers to multiple championships in 2015.

He isn’t worried about being the fleet-footed runner predecessor Nick Marshall was because he plans to barrel over defenders with his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame.

Auburn’s offense won’t change with him behind center because it’s the same offense he ran in high school, and he has had two extra years to perfect it, training like a starter.

He knows his right arm is a blessing. He brings a more consistent throwing option to the Tigers’ offense, which he has shown with his 858 career passing yards and his 73-percent completion percentage.

“He can be effective at running and throwing and that’s kind of best-case scenario for us,” coach Gus Malzahn said.

Johnson has finally found his best-case scenario. There were times he was frustrated sitting behind Marshall-- and some people tried to tell him he should transfer -- but he said he’s grateful for the experience he earned behind Marshall.

And now that this is his team, Johnson is ready for another confident stroll with his head high and his eyes focused.

“Now that my time is here,” he said, “I feel like God has something really good in store for me and this team this year.”