Beat Writer Q-and-A

Special thanks to Ryan Black of Auburn Undercover, a part of the 247Sports network …

Q: There was a lot of summertime excitement for Jeremy Johnson. What went wrong?

If you, me or anyone else outside the Auburn football program knew the answer to that, we’d all be very rich. But in all seriousness, I don’t think there’s really a good answer to this question. I, like many others, bought into Johnson developing into one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks. He has the size and arm strength that you’d want for the position. He had looked quite impressive in his playing time off the bench and in his two starts the past two seasons. He can also move reasonably well, though he’s certainly no Nick Marshall.

But he wasn’t expected to be, either. 

With Duke Williams returning, and a deep corps of young-but-talented receivers behind him, it was expected that Auburn’s passing game would take flight this fall. As you saw in the first three games, however, that simply didn’t happen. There are a theories out there — and there’s a reason they’re theories. It’s because no one really knows what happened. 

One thing that does seem certain is that it was partially — if not all — mental. Gus Malzahn even admitted as much. I haven’t given up on Johnson. I think he can still be a good quarterback in the SEC. The problem is, with Sean White gaining more and more confidence from coaches and teammates with each passing week, it’s possible that, barring injury to White, Johnson has already had his shot. 

Q: Did Auburn’s commitment to Johnson mean Sean White was farther behind when time came for a change?


This wasn’t one of those things where Johnson was simply handed the job after Marshall departed last season. Johnson had a leg up, sure, since he’d been in the offense a year longer and had actually taken reps in live games. But the competition was open this spring and White impressed the coaching staff enough that they waited until after the A-Day game to announce Johnson had won the starting job.

And really, there was nothing the coaching staff could have done to “speed up” White’s learning curve. He redshirted in 2014, so whatever game reps he received this season would have been his first as a collegian.

Q: Why does it seem Auburn’s receivers have been inconsistent? I know the loss of Duke Williams is a consideration, but didn’t he have like only 12 catches when he was dismissed?

That is correct: at the time of his dismissal, Williams had 12 receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown. As for inconsistency in the unit, I don’t really have a great answer for that one. A lot of focus is being given to Auburn’s drops last week — and rightly so. But I’ve seen some people start to characterize it as if the Tigers had been doing that all season, which they haven’t.

The quarterback change certainly didn’t help the receivers, either. 

If I had to point to one thing, I’d just say it’s been the inconsistency of the offense as a whole. No, the Tigers haven’t been a pass-happy attack the past two seasons — and it never will be if it operates the way Malzahn wants, since he repeatedly states they’re a “run-first, play-action pass” team. But the problem this season is the normally vaunted running game hasn’t been humming at the level of the 2013 or 2014 editions. And the scoring is well down, too, as the Tigers rank ninth in the league in points per game (28.4), a seven-point from the 35.5 output last season.

I understand this was a roundabout answer. But since Auburn’s receivers are never going to be the centerpiece of the offense, you have to look at other areas as the root cause of their lack of success in 2015. 

Q: What makes Peyton Barber able to handle 37 carries in a game?

He’s just a solidly-built kid.

Here’s this for comparison: Barber is 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds. That’s the same height as Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing last season. But Artis-Payne weighed 210. And then there’s 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason: Auburn listed him at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds. (Side note: The 5-foot-10 seems generous for Mason. I think he was closer to 5-foot-8. But that’s just me.)

Now does he have as much burst as either of his predecessors? No. But as I’ve noted, he’s actually a bit sturdier size-wise. With 770 rushing yards through seven games — which equals out to 110 per contest — it will be interesting to see how many Barber ends up with come the end of the season.

Q: What does getting Carl Lawson back mean for this defense?

Nearly everything.

Simply put, Auburn’s defense is a totally different unit when Lawson is on the field. Go back and look at the only half of football he’s played this season — the opener against Louisville. Look at how often he got to the quarterback. Look at how often he disrupted plays in the backfield. He’s the type of force off the edge that makes an offense change the way they do things. Whenever he returns, Lawson will make life far easier for tackles Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell, who received increased attention from blockers with Lawson unavailable.

Q: How do you think this team responds from the disappointment of a four-overtime loss?

A: I think they’ll respond fine. That doesn’t mean I’m picking the Tigers to win Saturday. That doesn’t mean I’m saying they’ll win out. 

I’m saying they’re not going to fold up shop on the season. As I’ve said multiple times since Saturday, if the Tigers were going to quit on the season, they could have gone belly-up after falling behind Arkansas 14-0 less than a minute into the second quarter last week. Arkansas was able to do whatever it wanted offensively. Conversely, Auburn’s receivers couldn’t hang on to a pass. But the Tigers fought back and had multiple opportunities to win the game before falling in quadruple-overtime.

I have no idea how the rest of Auburn’s season will play out. I just know they Tigers are going to acquit themselves nicely.

Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to John Davis and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

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