Duke Williams' return good news for Auburn, QB Jeremy Johnson

When Sammie Coates declared early for the NFL draft, the future prospects looked bleak for the Auburn receiving corps. Most assumed teammate and fellow wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams would join Coates and put his name in the draft as well, and the Tigers would lose more than 1,400 yards receiving and nine touchdowns from their offense.

However, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn announced Monday that Williams would be returning to school for his senior season.

Hallelujah. That was likely the reaction from quarterback Jeremy Johnson.

Set to take over for Nick Marshall next season, Johnson is already considered by many to be the best backup quarterback in the SEC. He has thrived in the limited opportunities he’s had, and he’s one of the league’s top breakout candidates for 2015.

“Jeremy Johnson has proven himself over the last two years to be as good a backup quarterback as there is in the whole country,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He could’ve started a lot of places, including in our league here.”

But it doesn’t matter how good you are if you don’t have anybody to throw the ball to, and Johnson was in danger of losing the team’s top three wide receivers.

Coates, a junior, will be gone to the NFL and Quan Bray is a senior, so he’s not coming back. But the return of Williams solidifies the receiver position and gives Johnson a go-to target his first full season as the starter, assuming he wins the job.

The two are already familiar with each other. In the season opener against Arkansas, the first SEC start for both players, Johnson and Williams hooked up on seven passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

“That was nothing surprising,” Johnson said after the game. “That’s what we expect out of him. He’s an NFL-type player. Duke is amazing. That was nothing to me.”

The NFL will have to wait, though. And ultimately, it might turn out to be a blessing for both Johnson and Williams.

The decision to come back might be perplexing to some, especially considering Williams sprained his MCL late in the season, but can you imagine a full, healthy season catching passes from Johnson? No offense to Marshall, who set the single-game school record for passing yards at Alabama his last time out, but Johnson is the better passer.

So while Williams will help Johnson next year, Johnson will help Williams just as much, if not more. It’s a win-win for both players and ultimately a win for Auburn.

Not that anybody was worried about Malzahn’s offense, but with Johnson taking over at quarterback, Williams turning down the NFL, offensive guard Alex Kozan returning from injury, and a backfield consisting of Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the Tigers should once again have one of the top offenses in the SEC.