AUBURN, Ala. – No external punishment was necessary when Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace fumbled the football two Saturdays ago at Vanderbilt.
Wallace took care of that with some self-direction. The very next day, the freshman could be found running heated drills through the ‘Blaster’ – a tackling mechanism used to exercise ball security – without pads, in regular clothes.
Sophomore tailback Tre Mason, Auburn’s best offensive weapon this year, took note.
Teammates have constantly and publically admired Wallace’s work ethic in the few months since he arrived from Central-Phenix City.
They’re ready to back their guy as Wallace becomes the Tigers’ third different starting quarterback in 2012 when New Mexico State visits Saturday for Auburn’s Homecoming weekend.
“Jonathan knows the offense inside and out,” senior receiver Emory Blake said. “No shakiness at all. He’s a leader on the field and in the huddle. He’s always been like that.”
Wallace will become Auburn’s fourth true freshman to start at quarterback in the past 40 years, and first since 2007 when Kodi Burns defeated – ironically – New Mexico State 55-20.
“Jonathan’s very mature beyond his years,” said head coach Gene Chizik, after making the announcement official Tuesday. “He was up here all day yesterday on his own just watching film – not that that’s the first day he’s done that. He’s just a little bit different. He’s not into all of the fluff; he just loves football.”
Playing in the past five games primarily as a Wildcat quarterback, Wallace’s role increased incrementally after debuting against LSU on Sept. 22. Following his first opportunity and knowing he wouldn’t redshirt, Wallace cranked up his studying.
“You can’t take a day off in this league. That’s the only way you’re going to have an edge,” Wallace said. “With that work ethic, I was able to grasp onto a lot of things more quickly than people may have expected. It’s been working, so I’m going to stay on that road.”
Less than nine months ago, Wallace appeared headed to Central Florida before flipping his commitment to Auburn on Feb. 1. Now, he’s a starting quarterback in the SEC – and he’ll soon take on No. 6 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama if he keeps the job.
“Ultimately, it’s a tremendous blessing,” Wallace said. “(My parents told me) no matter what happens, stay humble and rely on God to take care of me. That’s really what they’ve raised me with.”
Tight end C.J. Uzomah dropped the “first one here, last one to leave” label on Wallace, who admitted he tirelessly reviews as much video evaluation as possible – whether offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and his fellow quarterbacks are present or not.
“If I ever find any other time to get in the film room, then I’m trying to watch some on my own,” Wallace said. “I think that really benefits (me) having that discipline of going in and being able to watch some on my own.”
Sophomore Kiehl Frazier – who Chizik named Wallace’s backup – is still recovering from an arm injury, and junior Clint Moseley did not practice Tuesday with a bad ankle.
Wallace earned the job in part due to the injuries and ineffectiveness plaguing Auburn’s veterans, as well as his poise presented in Saturday’s 63-21 loss to Texas A&M. The Aggies played prevent defense in the second half, but Wallace took what was given, completing 6-of-9 attempts for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
“This will be a little different for him because the playbook will expand some; not that he hasn’t been in the meetings and hearing it and seeing it,” Chizik said. “But now he has the opportunity to be the starter and have to execute all of those things.”
Wallace made his mark largely by calmly avoiding the pass rush and keeping the offense coordinated, even with a large deficit. On Saturday, he’ll get his shot from the opening kick.
“He has ‘it’. We don’t know what ‘it’ is, but it’s something not a lot of people have,” Mason said. “He came in ready to go. It seems like he’s done this before, like he has the mindset of a senior who’s been here a while.
“We really do need a spark. Maybe he can do the job.”