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Jeremy Johnson takes charge at Auburn

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Jeremy Johnson's competitive charge doesn't have an off switch.

Between interviews on a recent morning, Johnson played pool with a teammate on the lower level of Auburn's athletic complex. Johnson does a lot of things well -- he has "NFL arm" in football, according to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, and could play Division I basketball after being named one of Alabama's top five high school ballers -- but he's pedestrian with a pool cue. The game drags through slops and scratches. Johnson disputes several shot selections, trash-talks and refuses to give an inch. Eventually, he's summoned for a TV interview, mercifully rendering the game a draw.

Johnson's drive is a welcome sign for Auburn after a 2014 season that lost steam. The Tigers started 5-0, rose to No. 2 nationally, and were ranked third before dropping four of their final five contests.

Quarterback Nick Marshall wasn't the problem. Auburn's defense cratered almost every week.

But Johnson is a different quarterback with a different leadership style. Unlike the reserved Marshall, there's nothing subtle about Johnson, from his hulking frame -- he's 6-foot-5 and hopes to play this season at 240 pounds -- to his big-time arm to the standards he sets for himself and those around him.

"Nick didn't say a lot," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "Now when he did, they listened. He led by example and the guys really believed in him. Jeremy, he's probably more of a vocal leader. He's comfortable being outspoken, getting on guys when he needs to, encouraging them when he needs to. He understands that in order to be a good leader, you have to earn the respect of your teammates first."

During a break at a recent practice, Johnson went to every offensive lineman and conveyed the same message: Finish strong.

"He's got our back and we've got his back," tackle Avery Young said. "That’s something really hard to find in a quarterback in this league right now."

Auburn has carved up defenses with its tempo and its power run game since Gus Malzahn returned to the Plains in 2013. The recipe isn't changing, but Johnson brings an appetite for passes, especially the downfield ones that change games. Auburn wants to attempt at least eight passes of 40 yards or longer per game.

Even if not all are completed, the constant threat in the minds of opposing defenders gives the Tigers an edge. Johnson likes the weapons at his disposal, led by Duke Williams but also including Ricardo Louis, Melvin Ray, Tony Stevens and Jason Smith, a junior-college quarterback creating buzz at receiver this spring.

"That’s what we’ve been working on this spring, figuring out which receivers we should back-shoulder, which receivers we should give a chance," Johnson said. "Throwing the ball vertical is going to be one of our keys to success. The running game is going to always come, but the passing game this year is going to be unbelievable."

Johnson impressed Malzahn with the way he handled the backup job last fall, completing 28 of 37 attempts for 437 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in seven games. Although Marshall helped Auburn to the national title game in his first season in the system, Johnson figures to benefit from added time with both Malzahn and Lashlee, and ample rehearsal time with the starters.

"He's got the ability to run the entire offense," Malzahn said. "He can make all the throws, he’s a lot better runner than people think, and he’s a tough guy. He has that desire to win."

If you need proof of Johnson's competitiveness, ask the junior from Montgomery, Alabama, about running the ball. He knows he's not Marshall, who eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in 2013 and averaged 5.74 yards per carry in two years with 23 rushing touchdowns. But he's also not a pocket plodder, and bristles that some still have that perception.

What he lacks in wiggle he provides in straight-line power.

"He would compare more to Cam Newton and Cardale Jones than Nick Marshall," Lashlee said, "and he's very willing to run."

Johnson said his last recorded 40-yard dash came in at 4.51 seconds. His goal is 4.48.

"Most people who haven’t seen me run don’t really know, so they'll probably be surprised," he said. "I'm a power-read, downhill runner."

Sean White has pushed Johnson this spring, and both Malzahn and Lashlee are pleased by what they've seen from the redshirt freshman. Both quarterbacks will be on display (although off limits for contact) at Saturday's A-Day scrimmage as Auburn wraps up spring drills.

But barring a seismic shift this summer, Auburn will be Johnson's team in the fall. He's taking ownership now, especially after a season when off-field problems "kind of caught up to us."

"That’s probably the reason why we came up short," he said. "We just try to hold everybody to a high standard and hold everybody accountable, just be mature and be a man. You know right from wrong, and if we try to hold each other to that standard, we all go."

Johnson intends to take the Tigers a long way.