Jonathan Palmer, a redshirt junior who filled in as a starting guard earlier this season in Auburn’s victories over Ball State and Kentucky, has proven to be a versatile performer for the Tigers. The 6-5, 320-pounder out of Cedar Grove High in Decatur, Ga., has shown that he can be an effective blocker at center, guard and tackle.
The Tigers needed Palmer to get the job done at center because starter Joe Cope injured his ankle at Georgia the previous week and wasn’t full speed yet for the Iron Bowl matchup. A senior who had been pushing Cope for the number one job, Steven Ross, has seen very little action this year due to a pair of hip injuries so Palmer was the pick to play the very important center position and call the line blocking assignments vs. the Crimson Tide.
Making his first start at center, Palmer says he enjoyed the intensity of the intra-state rivalry game as Auburn physically whipped Alabama on line of scrimmage on the way to a 28-18 victory.
“It was really fun,” he says. “I am not from Alabama, but I have heard about all of the hype about the Iron Bowl since I came to Auburn. I wanted to see these seniors on our team go out with a perfect record against Alabama so I knew I had to play hard. I think I did pretty good making my first start at center against a team like Alabama.”
Palmer says he is particularly pleased that fellow junior Kenny Irons was able to run for more than 100 yards against the Tide defense and keep his spot as the SEC’s leading rusher this season.
“We don’t get too much credit for anything else on the offensive line, but when you see a running back rush for 100 yards you know that somebody was getting whupped out there,” Palmer says with a big smile. “Against Alabama, we were doing some whupping.”
Palmer says he went into the game expecting the Tide’s defense to offer a challenge, which it did. “Their goal was to stop the running game and they stacked the box, but Cox (quarterback Brandon Cox) did a good job of passing the ball and scoring touchdowns.”
Like Auburn, Alabama was playing without its starting center, who was out of the Iron Bowl game due to an injury. However, unlike Auburn, the Tide's center struggled early and often trying to block the opposing defensive front. Tiger noseguard T.J. Jackson, who had a dominating performance in his final game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, helped set the tone for the game early by controlling the line of scrimmage.
The victory improved Auburn’s record to 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC. When and where Palmer and his teammates will play next won’t be determined until Friday when Arkansas plays at LSU. If Arkansas defeats LSU, Auburn will be back in action a week from Saturday in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta for a rematch vs. the Georgia team the Tigers defeated 31-30 in Athens.
If LSU wins, it will have a 7-1 league mark like Auburn, but the head to head tiebreaker for the spot in the championship game will go to LSU because of its overtime victory against Auburn in Baton Rouge.
Palmer came to Auburn in the same signing class with starting senior tackle Marcus McNeill, who is one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman. McNeill is one the most athletic linemen to play for the Tigers and position coach Hugh Nall notes that Palmer is a good athlete, too.
“There is no doubt that JP has the ability to be a really strong offensive lineman,” Nall says. “The key thing for him to get more playing time is to become more consistent.”
McNeill, who has played next to Palmer since their high school days, says that his friend is one of the most talented players on the Auburn football team. “Coach Nall would be the first to tell you that he is the most naturally talented offensive lineman we have,” McNeill says of Palmer. “With his body, his size and his great footwork he looks like an offensive lineman, plays like an offensive lineman and he has great athletic ability at the same time.”
If Auburn isn’t able to return to Atlanta to defend its 2004 SEC title, the next game for the Tigers will be at their sixth consecutive bowl game. A trip to Orlando for the Capital One game is the most likely destination this year in a matchup that pits a team from the SEC vs. an opponent from the Big 10.