AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn signed a consensus top-five recruiting class last February, the prevailing thought was that this was the group that would replenish the Tigers’ dwindled ranks, something the team would benefit from in the long term.
Now that the season is approaching — only 16 days before the opener against Arkansas State — there are high hopes this talented class can be big contributors in the short term.
“I think you will understand why our whole class chose to come here,” five-star freshman running back Michael Dyer said. “Each one in our class has a specific get-up about themselves. They’re all good, have great ability, all good people. …
“I think this unit has really bonded together and is ready to play at any time.”
Head coach Gene Chizik has regularly praised the class, citing a need for them to at the very least provide immediate special teams depth.
“They all want to contribute, which is a good thing,” Chizik said. “A lot of them are going to have to.”
Auburn had 14 days worth of practices before taking Wednesday off for the start of classes. Here’s a best guess at 14 true freshmen most likely to make an impact this season:
1. WR Trovon Reed: The shifty wideout is versatile enough to play receiver, return punts or play Wildcat quarterback. He missed some time when he tweaked a high school knee injury but has drawn rave reviews when he’s been on the field. He’s a play-maker Auburn needs.
2. RB Michael Dyer: The only thing holding him back is senior Mario Fannin. Dyer, ESPN’s top-ranked back last year, is a compact load to take down at 5-foot-9, 215 pounds. He’ll play right away, but it’s not clear how much. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his role increase as the season progresses.
3. DE Corey Lemonier: Tall and rangy, he has the speed to come off the corner at quick end. Senior Antoine Carter will start, but Auburn needs depth. Lemonier or junior college transfer Joel Bonomolo will provide that.
4. DT Jeffrey Whitaker: At 308 pounds, he’s got the size to play right away. Plus, Auburn isn’t loaded at tackle, where Mike Blanc and Nick Fairley haven’t shown consistency and Zach Clayton is an injury risk.
5. DE Craig Sanders: He enrolled in January to get a head start and packed on 25 pounds to better bang with the big boys. Now at power end, he’ll be in the mix.
6. CB Jonathon Mincy: Auburn doesn’t have great cornerback depth, so Mincy could be a factor. He’s a better bet to return punts, battling junior Quindarius Carr and sophomore Anthony Morgan for the job.
7. WR Shaun Kitchens: He’s 6-foot-3, 217 pounds and can move like a wideout, giving Auburn a big, physical receiver it lacks. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn envisions him in a versatile H-back role too.
8. LB Jake Holland: He backs up Josh Bynes in the middle, with Harris Gaston as his primary competition. Bynes will have to come off the field at some point; Holland could be the next man in.
9. WR Antonio Goodwin: He stood out during one scrimmage but plays a traditional receiver position. That’s a tough spot to crack with Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery as starters.
10. DT Kenneth Carter: At 281 pounds, he’s not as big as Whitaker, but the two have been lumped together by defensive line coach Tracy Rocker as players who have stood out early in camp.
11. FB Ladarious Phillips: He’s enormous (288 pounds) but has nimble feet. He won’t have a huge role, but using him as a goal line back seems logical.
12. LB LaDarius Owens: He has as much talent as any of the freshmen linebackers, but he plays on the weak-side behind Craig Stevens, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans.
13. CB Chris Davis: Along with Mincy, he’s been pegged by the coaches as the most likely to get on the field in a thin cornerback group.
14. P Steven Clark: The biggest all or nothing player of the class. The 6-foot-5, big-legged freshman is battling Ryan Shoemaker for the starting job. If Clark wins, he’ll have a big impact. If not, he’ll likely redshirt.