They are the most recent team not named Alabama to win a national championship, and they’ve gone undefeated twice in the in the last ten years. It’s a program that has finished with three straight top ten recruiting classes and boasts highly ranked players on both sides of the ball.
It’s also a program that finished 3-9 last year and, as a result, fired their entire coaching staff.
The Auburn Tigers are a program in flux. Talented and with plenty of resources, they face the challenge of overcoming a terrible performance last season and turning the program around in an increasingly competitive SEC West where teams will have to deal not only with Alabama and LSU but also an elite Texas A&M team, a rising Ole Miss squad, an Arkansas team that is being led by a highly successful new coach, and a Mississippi State team that has provided plenty of challenges to opponents over the last few years.
The precipitous fall of the Tigers was unexpected, yet the reasons for the fall are plenty. “When you go 3-9 it’s hard to pick one thing,” said Justin Hokanson, Recruiting and Football Analyst for AuburnSports.com. “You start with quarterback play. They thought that Kiehl Frazier (who started the season) could do well, but it was a hard transition with that offense, and Clint Moseley (the junior who replaced Frazier but has since left the team) was adequate at best and Jonathan Wallace (the unheralded true freshman who replaced Moseley) simply wasn’t ready,” Hokanson continued.
Hokanson also cited horrific play from the front seven, poor coaching, and behind the scenes issues that were factors in the season the Tigers would like to forget. The list could continue.
Despite the horrific season, there appears to be optimism on the Plains. New coach Gus Malzahn has brought in a strong staff with SEC experience catching the attention of Hokanson and others. “I think the strength of this staff is experience, particularly in the SEC,” said Hokanson who also noted that coaches like Rodney Garner (Auburn alum), Charlie Harbison, Tim Horton, Melvin Smith, and Dameyune Craig (Auburn alum) have all received “individual accolades as recruiters.”
“There is a strong dynamic and diversity to this staff, and they have the chance to be one of the better staffs in the country,” said Hokanson who was also high on Malzahn himself as a relentless recruiter and leader.
The immediate task for Malzahn and co. is recruiting, an area in which the Tigers have done well in recent years. In putting together his first class at Auburn, the former Tigers offensive coordinator has taken a two-pronged approach: evaluate the class Gene Chizik had put together and determine which players to attempt to hold on to, and, secondly, aggressively pursue the players he felt were needed to turn the program around.
Since Chizik’s departure, Malzahn and his staff have either let go or lost the commitments of nine prospects, most notably linebackers Reuben Foster and Trey Johnson as well as defensive tackle Dee Liner. While the Tigers continue to be in the mix for Foster, Johnson is firmly with Ohio State and Liner will likely go to Alabama, recycling a familiar storyline in recent years where Auburn loses a commitment late in the process to the Tide.
“The Liner situation is a deal where Alabama has a foothold in the area where Dee Liner is from,” said Hokanson. “That’s a tough place for Auburn to go and get a kid that Alabama wants, and the whole time he was committed there was ton of pressure on Dee.”
Despite the losses, Malzahn has reaffirmed the commitments of quarterback Jeremy Johnson as well as wide receivers Jason Smith and Earnest Robinson. Regarding Johnson, Hokanson believes he could be a cornerstone of Malzahn’s plans as a much needed quarterback. He said that Johnons is a “big, mobile quarterback, with good touch, and he’s a kid that they’ve targeted for a few years now.”
Hokanson also believes Smith is an “excellent, excellent player” who has “the speed, quickness, and natural athleticism to stand out in Malzahn’s offense” if he is placed at his likely wide receiver position.
In addition to locking down those key weapons as well as other players who committed to Chizik, Malzahn also shifted the focus to additional offensive weapons including top wide receiver Tony Stevens as well as more physical defenders including hard hitting safety Khari Harding. Malzahn also added five JUCO players he feels can make an immediate impact, and other players that fill holes in the class. Cameron Artis-Payne, a physical JUCO running back who had committed to Chizik, signed with Malzahn and looks to play a key role next year as well.
Of those additional JUCO players, Hokanson pointed to defensive tackle Ben Bradley as one who stands out. “He could be the starting defensive tackle next season,” Hokanson said.
As Signing Day approaches, the Tigers are perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in regards to how they will finish. They have battles on their hands when it comes to holding on to Breitbart Sports’ #1 player defensive end Carl Lawson as well as elite defensive end Tashawn Bower. Holding onto Lawson could be key for the Tigers as Hokanson sees the elite defender as “a very talented kid who is extremely strong and extremely fast.”
Hokanson went on to say that Lawson reminded him of Dwight Freeney and Elvis Dumervil, two of the NFL’s elite pass rushers who, like Lawson, lack ideal height.
Although holding onto Lawson will be key, the Tigers are also in the mix for a number of top prospects including Foster (#4 according to Breitbart Sports), defensive tackles Montravious Adams (#3 according to Breitbart Sports) and JUCO Toby Johnson, running backs Tarean Folston (Notre Dame commit), Johnathan Ford, and Corn Elder, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, defensive end Elijah Daniel (Ole Miss commit), and several other top prospects.
Hokanson said “the signs seem to be positive” when it comes to Auburn’s class. He believes Auburn holds onto Lawson, and, if the Tigers land Foster as he expects, the Tigers could be on the verge of something special. “Reuben is the lynchpin,” Hokanson said before adding, “he’s the guy that people will be looking at. Even if they lose on other prospects but land him, this class will be a success.”
Players like Alexander, Ford, and others whom Auburn seems to have momentum with could allow the Tigers to really make a splash on Signing Day
“I think they are the wild card,” said Hokanson. “They have a chance to shock a lot of people, and, if they are able to finish in the top ten and sign Reuben Foster, they will be one of the programs people are talking on National Signing Day.” Hokanson went on to say “Auburn has the most room to potentially sign guys and have the biggest finish.”
The final groundwork for that finish will be laid this weekend as Auburn hosts Lawson, Bower, Foster, Adams, Daniel, and others on campus this weekend.
With a 3-9 season in the rearview, Tigers fans can only hope that a strong close with the recruiting class does indeed come and that Malzahn can change the culture of the program. Hokanson believes good things are on the horizon. “I think the future is positive,” said Hokanson. “You have a staff of good recruiters, an innovative head coach that wants Auburn to get their edge back and a fast paced offense that will help them get there and that will attract talent on the offensive side of the ball. The questions is” Hokanson added, “can they put a top tier defense on the field?”
For Auburn, the answer to that question may begin on Signing Day as they await the decisions of Lawson and Foster as well as other top defenders and offensive weapons for the Malzahn offense.
If the Tigers want to keep pace with rival Alabama, it had better be a good day.