AUBURN, Ala. — Depth issues routinely forced Auburn into unenviable situations last season, whether it was relying on starters to play every snap or desperately hoping nobody got hurt.
Tigers coach Gene Chizik thinks his staff took the first step toward addressing those issues on national signing day.
Auburn shored up some of the depth problems inherited from Tommy Tuberville’s staff and worsened by the inevitable roster attrition associated with a coaching change.
The Tigers signed 32 players in all this offseason. Five who enrolled in January count against last year’s class. Of the other 27, up to 25 can enroll as scholarship players next season, a must for an Auburn squad that started last year with 78 scholarship players, seven below the NCAA maximum of 85.
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“Obviously, our goal was to always upgrade athletic ability and speed across the whole football team,” Chizik said. “That’s always at the forefront of what we want to do. As far as numbers on our football team, which we know were somewhat of an issue at times this year, that was very important for us to address.”
The team had three glaring needs — offensive line, linebackers and, to a lesser degree, defensive line. Auburn signed seven offensive linemen this offseason, four linebackers and five defensive linemen.
The offensive line was the most glaring shortcoming. The Tigers will have four senior starters next year, but 2011 is a concern, with few capable backups on the roster, a by-product of two straight recruiting classes that produced only two offensive linemen.
Auburn addressed that problem with one of the top offensive line classes in the country. Two junior college enrollees — Roszell Gayden (College of the Sequoias) and Brandon Mosley (Coffeyville Community College) — figure to compete immediately, with Gayden the odds-on favorite to replace the lone graduate from last year’s line, right tackle Andrew McCain.
But the Tigers had a strong freshman class as well. Shon Coleman, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound five-star recruit, stuck strong with the Tigers despite a late push from Alabama.
Eric Mack (St. Matthews, S.C.) was a pre-signing day steal from South Carolina, and Ed Christian (Valdosta, Ga.) and Chad Slade (Moody, Ala.) figure to be in the mix for prominent roles once Auburn’s senior class departs.
Two-star Tunde Fariyike (Thomaston, Ga.) was a late addition who could be a center down the line.
“It was imperative that our offensive line, in numbers, was what we needed to address,” Chizik said.
Linebacker was another concern. Starters Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens rarely, if ever, came off the field last year..
Although Eltoro Freeman began to figure things out by the end of last year, Auburn got little production from its scholarship freshman, Jonathan Evans and Harris Gaston, and lost reserves Spencer Pybus and Adam Herring to career-ending injuries.
But the Tigers restocked their linebacking corps with four-star linebackers Jake Holland (Pelham, Ala.) and LaDarius Owens (Bessemer, Ala.), along with three-star recruits Jawara White (Troy, Ala.) and Jessel Curry (Buford, Ga.).
Curry enrolled early in order to participate in spring drills and both Owens (No. 4) and Holland (No. 10) are top-10 recruits in Alabama.
Auburn got a late push of defensive line recruits that rounded out the class. The Tigers added four-star defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker (Warner Robins, Ga.) on Monday before getting a signing day commitment from four-star defensive end Corey Lemonier (Hialeah, Fla.) that caused the coaching staff to burst out in celebration.
Whitaker is the fifth-ranked tackle in the country by Rivals; Lemonier is the third-ranked weak-side defensive end.
Note: Auburn got its first commitment for 2011 when East Mississippi Community College defensive back Izauea Lanier said he’ll sign with the Tigers. Lanier failed to qualify academically after committing to Auburn in 2009.
The former Gordo (Ala.) High athlete plans to redshirt this year at EMCC and graduate in December, allowing him to enroll in Auburn next January and have three years to play three seasons.