Auburn football: With 2014 class already considered top 10, Tigers seek to move higher on signing day

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has a top 10 recruiting class entering national signing day. If the Tigers can land a few of their top targets on Wednesday, that ranking could rise dramatically. Todd J. Van Emst

TODD J. VAN EMST — Todd J. Van Emst

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn is well-positioned to bring in its second top 10 recruiting class in as many years under Gus Malzahn.

Entering Wednesday's national signing day, Auburn’s 2014 class is ranked in the top 10 by each of the three major recruiting services, with 247Sports rating it at No. 7, and both Rivals and Scout pegging it at No. 9.

Those rankings could improve considerably with just a few key decisions Wednesday. The Tigers are in the running for three of the top uncommitted prospects in the nation, including one right in their backyard.

Rashaan Evans is a five-star linebacker out of Auburn High School. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Evans is considered the top player in the country at his position, and he showed why this past season, tallying 54 tackles (12 for loss), 17 sacks, 20 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles, helping the Tigers make the 6A state championship game, where they fell to Hoover 20-3.

To keep Evans in town, Auburn will have to beat out two other finalists: arch-rival Alabama and Pac-12 representative UCLA.

Making sure he stays on the Plains is of the utmost importance, according to ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill.

“You can’t allow a guy out of Auburn High School to go anywhere else,” he said on a national conference call Monday. “He’s got to stay home and you’ve got to make that a no-brainer for kids: ‘Why would I go anywhere else? Auburn’s right here. This is where I want to be.’ That’s what has to happen for Auburn, and I think if you get a Rashaan Evans, that kind of starts that ball in motion.”

He will choose between the three during a ceremony at Auburn High, with his decision set for approximately 11:45 a.m. ET.

By that time, the Tigers’ could have already picked up another one of their top targets.

Four-star offensive lineman Braden Smith has Auburn in his final trio along with TCU and Texas A&M. Smith made an official visit to Auburn two weeks ago, with Malzahn and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes following up with an in-home visit days later. Smith is set to make his announcement at his high school in Olathe, Kan., just after 11:30 a.m. ET.

The Tigers will have to wait out the announcement of their final priority on signing day, though.

Defensive end Andrew Williams won’t reveal his intentions until this afternoon at Eagles Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga. The four-star prospect has long had Auburn and Clemson listed as his top two. But he spent this past weekend in Athens with Georgia coach Mark Richt and the rest of his staff, making the Bulldogs a late entrant into the discussion.

Whether Auburn can convince any members of the uncommitted trio to fax their letters-of-intent to the athletic complex, the Tigers’ recruiting haul up to this point has shown the legwork the coaching staff has put in.

The Tigers own the top junior college class in the country, as four of their signees — receiver D’haquille Williams, center Xavier Dampeer, defensive end DaVonte Lambert and safety Derrick Moncrief — were viewed as the top players at their respective spots. Williams, a potential game-changer at receiver, was ranked as the top junior college player regardless of position.

Pair Williams with running back commit Racean Thomas — who ran for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns at Oxford (Ala.) High School last season — and Luginbill believes the Tigers are well on their way to becoming even more explosive offensively in the coming years.

“They’ve now done that with D’haquille Williams at the junior college ranks, I think he certainly fits the bill," Luginbill said. “And then at running back with Tre Mason departing early, it’s critical for Roc Thomas to come right in and likely … have a significant role — maybe not the feature back, (but) maybe will develop into being the feature back. I think that’s been very, very important.”

Despite Malzahn’s reputation as an offensive-minded coach, the Tigers haven’t overlooked defenders in his first two recruiting classes. Last year, 10 of Auburn’s 24 commitments played defense. This year, 12 of the Tigers’ 21 pledges are defenders, with the possibility of adding Evans or Williams (or both) on Wednesday.

If Auburn wants to keep up the success it had in Malzahn’s debut season, Luginbill said having depth defensively is paramount.

“Gus Malzahn knows as well as anybody that at the end of the day what will keep them in the running in the SEC West and competing for conference championships will be how well they hold up, how deep they are in the front seven," Luginbill said. "When they rotate players in and out of there, is there a drop-off in talent between the guy who left the field and the come who came on? That’s where the core focus has to be."

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