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Jeremy Johnson opens spring practice as Auburn's quarterback to beat

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AUBURN, Alabama — Auburn's starting quarterback job is Jeremy Johnson's to lose.

The Tigers opened spring practice Tuesday with Johnson the clear front-runner after spending two seasons backing up Nick Marshall, creating a potentially drama-free quarterback competition leading up to next season.

Johnson's potential challengers include redshirt freshman Sean White, freshman Tyler Queen and junior college transfer Jason Smith, who could also end up playing another position.

"He's going to have to go out there and win the starting job, but he's in a very good spot and we have a lot of confidence in him," coach Gus Malzahn said.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson, who gained about 10 pounds in the offseason has started one game each of the past two seasons. He said he feels "much stronger and faster."

Johnson started the opener last season against Arkansas when Marshall was suspended for the first half.

Now, Johnson's the presumed No. 1 guy even though he said he's not taking that for granted.

"It's a competition, and they're all pushing me," Johnson said after practice. "I'm not looking at it as I'm the starter or I'm going to be winning the starting job. I'm just there competing."

He brings a different style than Marshall, who was a constant running threat operating the zone read. But, Johnson said, "The ones who haven't seen me run probably will be surprised."

The switchover from Marshall could mean at least a tweaking of the offense for Malzahn, who called Marshall "one of the better runners from a quarterback standpoint probably this league has seen."

PHOTO: Auburn quarterback Jason Smith, left, greets quarterback Jeremy Johnson  during the first day of spring NCAA college football, Tuesday, March 10, 2015, at the Auburn Athletic Complex in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/AL.com, Julie Bennett)
Auburn quarterback Jason Smith, left, greets quarterback Jeremy Johnson during the first day of spring NCAA college football, Tuesday, March 10, 2015, at the Auburn Athletic Complex in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/AL.com, Julie Bennett)

"We'll build around our starting quarterback, and Jeremy is the guy that is going to take the first snap" in practice, Malzahn said. "He's got the most experience. Jeremy is a good runner in his own right. He's not exactly like Nick but he's a very good runner. He throws the ball extremely well. But all of our quarterbacks are going to have a run element."

It's a change from last spring, when Malzahn had a returning starter at quarterback for the first time as a college coach. Johnson finally gets his chance to take over the offense.

"I don't think he's changed at all," offensive lineman Avery Young said. "I know he's taking it real serious right now and trying to do what he has to do to make things happen for him."

Auburn is also searching for replacements for running back Cameron Artis-Payne, center Reese Dismukes and wide receiver Sammie Coates on offense. Sophomore Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, who is already enrolled, give the Tigers two highly touted candidates to replace Artis-Payne, who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing.

Defensively, the big focus is on new coordinator Will Muschamp's efforts to rebuild a defense that was victimized down the stretch last season.

The defensive struggles contributed to Auburn's fall from national title contender. The Tigers lost four of their last five games.

Malzahn fired veteran SEC coordinator Ellis Johnson and hired Muschamp, who had recently been fired as Florida's head coach.

Muschamp has got the three leading tacklers returning, with established players like linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy, defensive tackle Montravius Adams and cornerback Jonathan Jones.

Malzahn said one goal for the spring is to regain "that hard-nosed edge that we kind of lost toward the end of last year."

"We're going to be very physical in spring, and we're going to get that back," he said.

NOTES: Mississippi transfer Austin Golson, who sat out last season, is moving from tackle to center to start the spring. ... Linebacker Anthony Swain, who Malzahn said will graduate this spring, has left the team. Punter Jimmy Hutchinson has also decided to "explore other opportunities," the coach said. ... Former Auburn defensive lineman Kenneth Carter has joined the staff in an off-the-field role. Jeff Nord, who was a graduate assistant under Malzahn at Arkansas in 2006, will work as an offensive analyst.

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