Monday, July 20, 2015

Why Jeremy Johnson Doesn't Have to Run and Why We Shouldn't Care That He Won't

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Has anyone else noticed the amount of articles being posted on social media pertaining to Jeremy Johnson and his running/lack of running ability? I have. And it's getting pretty old and played out. 

People say he can. People say he can't. People say he should. People say he shouldn't. And, Gus and Jeremy sometimes weigh in on the subject. 

I'm hear to tell you that his ability to run...or not run...doesn't really matter. 

The comparisons to a one Cam Newton began before Johnson was ever on campus. There are some similarities. Namely, the overall size of each of these men is very similar. And, both can chunk the ball a very very long way. But, to be perfectly honest, that's about the limits of the comparisons, in my eyes. 

Jeremy Johnson is already on par to college-age Cam Newton in his throwing ability. Which means he doesn't HAVE to run. Did you raise your eyebrows? 

His ability to throw the ball was well known when he was in high school. He was described by many people, Gus Malzahn included, as having a real-deal NFL arm. In his limited action in his first two years, he has shown that he has the gift. Not only does he have the ability to make all the throws, but he has the brains to make the decisions on exactly which throw he should make. Of his 2 INTs he has tossed, I recall one being a WR at fault. I can't recall the other. As a sophomore, he was nearly perfect in his limited action. 

In this year's A-Day game, Johnson was nearly flawless in his over-all execution. The only flaws I saw in his game was a particular series in which he was locked on to Duke Williams. He missed Duke on the sidelines on one throw and shorted another dig route that nearly found the ball going the other way. But, after that one series, Johnson opened up his playbook and began making some fairly unbelievable reads. He checked down into the flats. He threw a wheel route to a fullback. He looked a safety off and completed a perfect pass for a TD to Myron Burton. He avoided a sack, stepped up into the pocket, and fired a 50 yarder to Louis. 

And that's where the difference's between Cam and Jeremy really start to glare. Don't get me wrong. Cam was almost perfect all year in 2010 throwing the ball, especially down the stretch. But, anyone who understands the game will tell you that his arm wasn't the only thing completing those passes. Defenses were more terrified of his (and Dyer's) ability to run it down their throat than they were scared of his ability to beat them in the short game throwing. So, why did Cam end up with 30 TD passes? Well, the defenses stacked the box. Cam ran play action passes. And then he threw it as far as he could to a (usually) wide open receiver. However, Cam struggled making reads and finesse passes. Never was it more evident than those early games. But, again, it quickly became evident that he didn't have to. Bear Bryant made one of the most astute observations of the game when he said that "3 things happen when you pass and two of them are bad." Why throw it short when you can run it? To sum it up, Cam was perhaps the greatest running quarterback in modern football history. Yes, Tebow owns a lot of records and all, but Cam churned out the greatest single-season road grate that any of us will ever see. He was, by all definitions, unstoppable. 

Can Johnson run it? Sure. There have been some leaks that Johnson runs a 4.49 50 yard dash. Doubtful, but I am sure he close. Can he run the zone read? Well, yea. He has undoubtedly practiced it for the 2 years he has been on the Plains. And, honestly, it doesn't matter how fast you are when you are that big. If you make the right read, a 6'6" guy can fall forward at the line of scrimmage for 3 yards. I'm not great with math, but that's pretty good. 

The other thing that many pundits are considering is how the offense was run with Nick Marshall. The nimble-footed Marshall was more like Cam than most people will ever admit. The difference is that the handoffs went outside for Cam as opposed to inside with Nick. Cam was a battering ram that took 3 defenders to tackle and a long stride that was nearly impossible to match. Nick was elusive around the edge, but just as fast. He might go down with the first defender, but that defender had to catch him, which was usually a tall order....especially in the backfield. Marshall and Cam were more alike in the throwing game than anyone will ever admit, as well. Both could throw the ball as far as it needed to be thrown. Both struggled at times to check it down. Both had issues with fitting the ball into windows in the short game. But, both these quarterbacks took Auburn to National Championships and lit up the stat sheets and scoreboards.  

Which is why everyone immediately assumes that for Auburn to have success, JJ must be able to run.  If he doesn't, the Gus Bus will derail. 


Though Malzahn's offenses at Auburn have been mostly top-level offenses, we sometimes forget that the offenses that put him on the map were not true dual-threat QBs. They were polished passers who didn't have to run. And, the overall offenses weren't just spread offenses that didn't have a run game. 

Chris Todd set several Auburn records with his single year under Malzahn at Auburn.

Paul Smith, under Malzahn in 2007, threw for 5,000 yards and 47 TDs in a season! He ran for under 200 yards.

David Johnson, while at Tulsa in 2008, threw for over 4,000 yards and 46 TDs while running for less than 200 yards. 

Ryan Applin, with Gus at Arkansas State for a single season, threw for 3,300 yards and 24 TDs against a VERY tough schedule. He ran for 430 yards. 

And yet, each of these offenses had something you wouldn't believe. They featured a running back with at least 1,000 yards. In fact, his two offenses at Tulsa featured one back who ran for 2,700 yards in those two seasons. 

Seems to me that maybe the assumptions that are being made might be a tad over-inflated. Seems to me that we are trying to fit Gus' offense into our idea of an offense instead of letting him mold his own. In fact, there is a lot more truth to that than you might think. Marshall and Netwon were elite athletes....and that's a word I don't throw around lightly. Both were players that had a wide skill set and that he didn't have enough time to mold into his own ideal quarterback. They were the exception and not the rule. So, he fit an offense around them that would work for the time he had. And, he did a fantastic job. Up next is Johnson and we make all of these assumptions. He has to do this like Cam. He has to do that like Marshall.

As much as I love Cam and Nick, both struggled with check downs. Both were off and running when the edge blitz came. And, it's amazing that both of them lasted whole seasons (though it's worth noting that Cam was hurt in the National Championship game and Nick Marshall missed extensive time). Why? Because they were run-first. 

There is another critical aspect of the game many people forget. Auburn frequently ran to run the clock...not just to score. Both the 2013 and 2014 defense were some of the worst defenses fielded on the Plains. The 2010 wasn't exactly a dominating unit, either. The same can be said for every stop that Gus Malzahn has made. That will change in 2015, it would seem. Gus won't ...err....shouldn't....have to worry about clock management anymore. Scoring will be his primary purpose. And, that means a lot of throws. 

Johnson doesn't have to run. And, he probably won't, at least not to the level that we saw with the two aforementioned QBs. And Auburn is going to win a lot of games, anyway. Why? Because Johnson is a true pocket passer and even a casual observation of his in-game play will show that. Just as I said earlier, he has all the tools. He looks off the secondary. He checks down. He uses the whole field. He steps up into the pocket and delivers the ball. And, most importantly, he is scary accurate. 

So, I just laugh when I see these comparisons to the two great Auburn QBs. Who really cares if he can run the zone read when he can throw the ball 30 times a game and go 22-30 for 350, and 3 TDs? Really? Let's not forget that Auburn has one of the most talented and high-potential backfields anywhere in the country. I firmly believe that Roc Thomas will take the place of the traditional QB in the zone read. Instead of making JJ run the ball, he has two potential reads...inside to a Barber/Robinson or outside to Thomas. I wrote earlier about how I think the offense will evolve even further with these talented backs.

Sure, it puts the offense at a slight numbers disadvantage in terms of "helmet on helmet" numbers, but so does losing your QB when you need him most. Let's not forget that Auburn has always had a capable backup on those good offenses who was a veteran (Burns with Todd, Caudell with Newton, Johnson with Marshall). Auburn doesn't really have that this year. 

Johnson also has the most potential at the WR core than any previous QB has had at Auburn under Malzahn. It's going to allow him the ability to spread the ball and create mismatches, which hasn't been possible at Auburn since 2004. That is , of course, the WRs live up to their potential. 

To sum up, Johnson has a very talented backfield, top to bottom as well as a high-potential WR corp. Though White looks like he will be a solid QB in the future, he is pretty new and untested. Running the ball with your QB, regardless of the talent and ability, is risky.  Malzahn won't have to run the ball to manage the clock. If Muschamp does what we all think he will, Malzahn will have the luxury of being able to throw it 30 times a game without worrying about time management or 3-and-outs. Lastly, Johnson is already a more polished passer than either of the run-first QBs that Auburn has found success with (Newton/Marshall) and his game film already proves that. Now, can he do it a whole season? That remains to be seen. But, when I look at all of these bits of information, I see a QB that doesn't have to...and shouldn' the ball. It isn't his strength and the offensive game plan shouldn't need it. So, can we stop with all the questions about his ability to run, already? If I didn't know any better, I would think the media called the plays, not Gus.