AUBURN, Ala. — Starting quarterback is simply a title. A job description. Literally, it means trotting out for the opening drive and taking the first snap.
Nothing’s guaranteed after that.
Jonathan Wallace knows it. He has watched Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley earn the adoration of the Auburn faithful, only to have it drift away with each ensuing sack, turnover and team defeat.
“Right now, everybody’s going ‘Yay, Jonathan,'” said his mother, Michelle Wallace, who works in the guidance counseling office at Central-Phenix City High School, from where Jonathan graduated last spring.
“But then there are times when you’re going to throw the wrong ball, you’re going to get sacked, and people are going to get upset. So you can’t worry about what people say. That’s why it doesn’t bother him, because he already knows. He’s got that mindset.”
True freshman Jonathan Wallace was named the Tigers’ starting quarterback Tuesday, the first time in a while the position has been stabilized multiple days before a game. Wallace is the first Bi-City quarterback to start for a SEC team since Hardaway’s Wayne Johnson started for Georgia in the mid-1980s.
The first major test of Wallace’s career comes Saturday on homecoming weekend against New Mexico State, a 1-7 team without a win in the WAC.
After that No. 6 Georgia comes to town and then a trip to top-ranked Alabama. But right now, it’s baby steps for Wallace and an offense with nowhere to go but up from its 16.4 points and 284.0 yards per game, ranking near the very bottom of all Division I teams.
“Last night was a very energetic practice, and (Wallace) did a great job,” head coach Gene Chizik said. “You have some guys rallying around him, understanding this is a little bit different role than just coming in and playing a smaller segment in the game plan. They’re excited to give him an opportunity to play and to play with him.”
Much as he tries to ignore the public unrest descending on a program fallen to 1-7 this year, Wallace has spent most of his life learning from his parents and three older siblings exactly how to combat unnecessary distractions.
“You have to stay positive. You block out all the negatives. There’s only so much you can do,” Wallace said. “You can’t change the past, so you try to change what you can change. You can’t really think, ‘aw, man, we’re having a terrible season.’ You have to think of the good, that hey, we’ve got four games left, let’s finish this season up on a good note.”
Frazier, a former Parade All-American quarterback, started the first five games for Auburn before being pulled at halftime against Arkansas. Moseley was given his turn, to the delight of fans fed up with Frazier’s indecision, but the offense continued to stall and remained dormant until Wallace was given nearly an entire half in mop-up duty against Texas A&M on Saturday.
With a nothing-to-lose attitude, he thrived, completing 6-of-9 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Aggies backups playing it safe. With Auburn’s team and fans yearning for someone or something to cheer, Wallace’s coaches, past and present, believe he can handle the challenge.
“Jonathan’s very mature beyond his years,” Chizik said. “He’s just a little bit different.”
And from Central offensive coordinator Ryan Nelson, “Jon has a natural ability to absorb what he has, block it out and go play football. He’s a type of kid that it’s not so much, ‘oh my god, I’m overwhelmed by 90,000 people.’
“To him, it’s ‘I’m anxious to get out here and prove to my teammates, coaches and fans that I can do it.’ It’s the anticipation factor.”
The Tigers have lost five straight, and now turn to a rookie to salvage what’s left of 2012. The weight of an antsy, intensely passionate fan base’s expectations has been hoisted on an 18-year-old’s shoulders.
Not like he notices it.
“The most pressure I’ve felt on a football field?” Wallace was asked Tuesday. He bit his lip, thinking for a second before answering. “I’ve never really felt pressure before. I think what I would say is being able to …”
Wallace paused, and switched course.
“Winning is not easy. That’s one of the things some people get mixed up sometimes,” he continued. “It really starts with the preparation. That’s something I learned growing up throughout my whole life.”