With just over two months to pick up the pieces of a decimated recruiting class after change over in coaching staffs, Gus Malzahn and his assistants were able to reassemble a borderline top-10 class for Auburn in 2013.
Malzahn’s first official recruiting class on the Plains had 23 signees including three premier defensive linemen, a unit which struggled mightily last season, and a surge of talent to the wide receiver and quarterback positions. The Tigers 2013 recruiting class finished national signing day ranked No. 10 by Rivals, No. 11 by 247Sports and No. 13 by Scout as of 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Tigers got a major boost at defensive line thanks in no small part to the efforts of associate head coach/defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner, landing five-star defensive ends Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson as well as five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams.
“In this league, you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and the defensive line was a focus,” Malzahn said. “The three guys we have, we feel like are three of the best in the entire country. Coach Garner’s a great coach and he’s going to have three guys that have a chance to help us immediately.”
The first official high school signee of the Malzahn era was Daniel, an Under Armour All-American out of Avon, Ind. Rated a five-star prospect by 247Sports and four-star by Rivals and Scout, Daniel recorded 85 tackles, 16 TFL, five sacks and was named first team all-state last season.
Daniel said his official visit to Auburn this past weekend had an impact on his decision, which resulted in a flip from his previous commitment to Ole Miss.
“It was a real tough decision,” he said. “It was late (Tuesday) night I was deciding that stuff.”
Lawson committed to Auburn in March 2012 and stuck by the Tigers through the change in coaching staffs when nine other commits left. Malzahn called Lawson, also an Under Armour All-American, one of the “keys” to the class.
Lawson had 78 tackles, 44 for loss and 26.5 sacks as a senior at Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.) and is ranked among the best defensive ends in the nation by multiple recruiting services.
Then came Adams, a consensus five-star defensive tackle ranked among the best players in the nation. Also an Under Armour All-American, Adams made 127 tackles, 34 for loss and 7.5 sacks as a senior at Dooly County (Vienna, Ga.).
Adams, who took an official visit to the Plains last weekend, chose Auburn over Georgia, Alabama and Clemson. He revealed his decision live on ESPNU, wearing an airbrushed T-shirt with “AUBURN” written above a picture of himself.
There was a particularly awkward viewing moment when Adams spoke about the change in coaching staffs while former Auburn coach Gene Chizik was sitting in studio.
“Auburn was a team that I already liked and when all the coaches got fired I kind of not going to go there but I gave them a second chance and I ended up going there.”
As for how quickly the trio of top recruits can see the field and help improve a defense which had just 22 sacks – 11th in the SEC – and lost Corey Lemonier to graduation, Malzahn feels they can see the field quickly.
“Up front, they’re going to have a chance to play immediately. Obviously, they have to earn that,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to have pass rushers. We’ve got to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. I feel like the defensive ends can do that.’
While the defensive line was the group which saw the marquee additions, the Tigers also added depth at wide receiver, quarterback and running back.
Marcus Davis (Delray Beach, Fla.), Earnest Robinson (Pinson, Ala.) and Orlando Evans teammates Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker are the four wide receivers in the class. Auburn lost its leading three receivers, wide out Emory Blake, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and running back Onterio McCalebb, to graduation.
“I believe we only had six receivers on scholarship. We knew we had some holes there,” Malzahn said. “We needed to provide some depth. (Wide receiver) coach (Dameyune) Craig did a very good job of recruiting in a very short time. We’ll have a chance to look back in the future -- this is a very talent receiving group.”
The Tigers added depth at quarterback as well, with JUCO signal caller Nick Marshall (Garden City C.C.), Carver’s Jeremy Johnson and McGill Toolen’s Jason Smith. Though Smith may end up playing wide receiver, as he did in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game in which he was the MVP, Malzahn said they’ll each have a chance to play quarterback.
“We’re going to give all three of those guys a shot at quarterback and they’re all very talented at that position,” he said. “As you’ve all seen in the past, the dual-threat type guys that can do a lot of different things, keep plays alive, can be very successful with what we do.”
At running back, the Tigers were in desperate need of depth with the loss of McCalebb and the transfer of Mike Blakely.
The top-rated JUCO running back in the country, Cameron Artis-Payne, had already signed in December and is enrolled in classes. On Wednesday, Auburn added Peyton Barber, who is teammates with Lawson, and Johnathan Ford (New Hope, Ala.), a consensus four-star prospect who picked Auburn over Tennessee.
Six junior college players are part of the class and more could be added in the near future. Artis-Payne, Marshall, defensive back Brandon King (Highland C.C.) and Hutchinson C.C. (Kan.) teammates defensive tackle Ben Bradley, offensive lineman Devonte Danzey and linebacker Kenny Flowers are the JUCOs in this year’s class.
The 2013 recruiting class was rounded out by safety Mackenro Alexander (Immokalee, Fla.), safety Khari Harding (Edmond, Okla.), defensive back Kamryn Melton (Dothan, Ala.), kicker Daniel Carlson (Colorado Springs, Colo.), offensive guard Deon Mix (Batesville, Miss.) and linebacker Cameron Toney (Huntsville, Ala.).
Punter Jimmy Hutchinson was considered a commit to this class leading up to signing day but will grey shirt and is expected to enroll in the Spring of 2014, though the offer is not binding.
For Auburn to end up in, or on the fringe of, a top-10 class given the short time table and to land a defensive line as highly-touted as it did, is the completion of a great job by the new coaches. Malzahn, who said he may have slept as little as two hours Tuesday night, felt the day went as well as he could have expected.
“When we went to bed last night, I would say there’s very little change/ There is some anxiety,” he said. “Any time you’re coming in this thing and you’re four or five weeks in and you don’t have the foundation relationships, stuff can happen. But our coaching staff did a wonderful job developing those relationships in a short period of time. Pretty much went as planned today when we got up.”