AUBURN, Ala. — All in all, Auburn had what could be considered a successful national signing day.
The Tigers were able to land two of the three uncommitted targets they sought entering Wednesday: offensive lineman Braden Smith and defensive end Andrew Williams. And their class finished ranked among the top 10 in the estimation of the three major recruiting services, with 247Sports putting it at No. 6, Scout slotting it at No. 8 and Rivals pegging it at No. 9.
Gus Malzahn believed his team “filled our needs” as well as it could.
“(I’m) proud of our staff. They worked extremely hard to develop a relationship, and we really felt like they worked hard to bring the right-type guys for Auburn, hard-nosed, high-character, very talented young men,” Auburn’s coach said after the dust settled Wednesday afternoon. “And one of the big things for me, too, is I really appreciate the loyalty of our commitments. In this day and time, that's very rare. We had guys that were committed to us, even before the season, that could have taken other trips, and they chose to stay very loyal, to help us recruit.”
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But it wouldn’t be signing day without theatrics and controversy — and Auburn experienced both in full Wednesday morning.
To heighten the drama, it took place in Auburn’s backyard. The Tigers were one of three finalists — along with Alabama and UCLA — for Rashaan Evans, a five-star linebacker prospect from Auburn High School. Before he made his announcement, however, a bio leaked from Auburn’s athletic department that had Evans already committed to the Tigers.
While Auburn made no official statement on the error, assistant athletic director and football sports information director Kirk Sampson tried to clarify the situation on his personal Twitter account
“Auburn Athletics did not prematurely post a bio of a recruit,” Sampson tweeted. “Bios are pre-built and hidden by code in anticipation of signing day.”
Coincidence or not, it didn’t bode well for Auburn, as Evans eventually signed with the Crimson Tide.
“This decision was probably the hardest I've ever made in my life," Evans said. "There really was no bad decision and ultimately the reason I picked Alabama was because I felt like, not only could they help me pursue my football career, but also aspects outside education."
When asked about Evans during his press conference, Malzahn refused to address it directly, instead shifting the spotlight on the 23 players the Tigers had signed.
“We focus on the guys that are here and we've got one of the best classes in college football, not only talent-wise, but all the things that go with it,” he said. “And we're coming off a year that we come 13 seconds short of winning the national championship. We've got a lot of guys coming back and when you add that to this group coming in, the future's very bright and we're going to win a lot of games."
Even though Evans is heading to Tuscaloosa, the Tigers were able to land a pair of other highly-touted prospects in linebacker Tre Williams and running back Racean Thomas. Malzahn praised both of the Alabama native as being linchpins to the 2014 class.
“Tre' Williams (is) really one of the keys to this class,” he said. “We really felt like he was the top linebacker in the class, a guy that has been with us, committed to us, had opportunities to go anywhere he wanted (but) he chose to stay loyal. He was really a big key to this signing class and just a great person. He's got great potential and he'll make an immediate impact.”
Thomas, who was named Alabama’s Mr. Football after running for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns, could potentially fill the void left by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason — and it could happen sooner rather than later.
“He was the top running back on our guys' board, our offensive staff identified him early (and) they recruited him extremely hard,” Malzahn said. “Once again, a key to this class. He was very loyal to us, could have went anywhere and chose to not. He stayed with us. We really feel like he's got the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact.”
Since fall camp began last August, Malzahn said he and his coaching staff coaching staff hasn’t slowed down. The second Auburn's defeat to Florida State in the BCS championship game was in the books, Malzahn and his assistants hit the recruiting trail. With national signing day in the rearview mirror, it’s time to decompress.
Malzahn said he and the rest of the coaches will come into the office Thursday to go back over the recruiting class one more time and begin making preparations for spring practice.
Once Friday rolls around, however, the Tigers’ coaching staff will have a brief respite before it’s back to the grind once more.
“We're going to let our guys get away from the office and clear their mind and all that,” Malzahn said. “I'm very proud of them. It's been a long year with playing in the national championship and going straight into recruiting. So we'll take some time off and we'll get refreshed and go back at it again."