AUBURN, Ala. – Nick Marshall knew he wasn’t starting the season opener. He knew he had to sit out at least the first drive against Arkansas because of the marijuana citation he received in the offseason. As it turns out, the Auburn quarterback had to sit out the first six drives, the entire first half, and watch as backup Jeremy Johnson made big throw after big throw against the Razorbacks.
Rather than get frustrated, Marshall stayed upbeat on the sideline. He encouraged Johnson, telling him to “keep doing what you’re doing, stay focused and keep leading the team.”
Marshall finally got his chance on the first drive of the second half, and it was like he never missed a beat. He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 78-yard drive that he capped with a 19-yard touchdown run in Auburn's 45-21 victory.
After the game, the stats might have favored Johnson, who threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but Auburn isn’t about to make a change under center.
“Nick’s still our quarterback,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I will tell you this, just like I’ve said before, Jeremy will have a role. We talked in the offseason about giving him more – different situations, different packages – and that’s the way we’re going about it. But Nick Marshall’s our quarterback.”
And Johnson knows that. That’s why during fall camp he all but guaranteed that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy, and that’s why he didn’t care when Marhsall replaced him at halftime despite the numbers Johnson had put up in the first half.
“No, I didn’t mind at all,” Johnson said. “I knew at a point in time he was going to come in the game anyway, so I just took advantage of my time that I had in the game and I cherished it. I had to show the world what I was capable of doing and what I can do against anybody.
“We know the team is going as far as we take them together.”
This isn’t your typical quarterback situation. Most teams don’t have a backup as talented as Johnson, and some don’t even have a starter as talented as Johnson. Auburn could score a lot of points and win a lot of games with Marshall playing every snap the rest of the way, but why not use all of your assets?
At least that’s the way Malzahn sees it after Saturday’s game.
“That [game] confirmed what we thought about Jeremy,” he said. “We’ve been saying for a long time that he’s a very talented quarterback. It was good to see him go out there and perform like that, and we were very impressed as a coaching staff.
“We said he’d have a role even before that game, and he will. Each week it could possibly be a little different.”
Though the two quarterbacks are different in style, that didn’t seem to faze the rest of the offense against Arkansas. Sure, they might run more with Marshall in the game and pass more with Johnson in the game, but that doesn’t change the overall game plan.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in each one,” offensive tackle Shon Coleman said. “Jeremy came in and did his thing. Nick came in and did his thing. It really doesn’t matter to the offensive line who’s back there. We’re just planning on protecting whoever’s back there.”
When Auburn hosts San Jose State on Saturday, Marshall is expected to return to the starting role – after all, this is his team – but there’s a good chance you see Johnson at some point in the game, maybe sooner rather than later.
It could be that way all season. It’s up to the coaches to manage the two quarterbacks and get the most out of them. If done right, the sky is the limit for this offense and for this team.
“We’re probably the best two-quarterback [tandem] in college football,” Johnson said. “With us together, we’re going to lead our team to a national championship.”