AUBURN, Ala. — After he was hired as Auburn’s head coach last December, Gene Chizik vowed to prioritize recruiting, hoping to reestablish the school as a force in the Southeast and stretch the Tigers’ recruiting scope to include some of the country’s highest-profile prospects.
So far, so good.
With big-time commitments in recent weeks from five-star running back Michael Dyer of Little Rock, Ark., and four-star receiver Trovon Reed of Thibodaux, La., Auburn has shot up the national recruiting rankings. The Tigers are rated No. 8 on Rivals.com’s 2010 list, with one five-star commit, eight four-stars and 11 three-stars.
That still trails Alabama (second), LSU (fourth), Florida (fifth) and Tennessee (seventh) in the rankings, but it is a significant leap up from the 19th-ranked class Chizik and his newly assembled staff patched together after last year’s coaching turnover.
In Tommy Tuberville’s final seven years at Auburn, only once did he reel in a class as high as eighth. (The Tigers had the seventh-ranked class in 2007.)
“It’s really been neat,” said Chizik, who built his staff with aggressive recruiters, such as Trooper Taylor, Curtis Luper and Tommy Thigpen. “I mean, all of the assistants have done a phenomenal job of going after the right-fit guys. They’re all great players, but they’re also in our opinion the right fit, the right kind of guys for this place. …
“It’s been neat, because they’ve all been very receptive to Auburn.”
Auburn has commitments next year from the No. 1 prospects in three states — Dyer from Arkansas, Reed from Louisiana and offensive lineman Shon Coleman from Olive Branch, Miss.
The Tigers still lag behind Nick Saban in recruiting the state of Alabama. The Crimson Tide, for the fourth straight year, snagged the state’s two top recruits. Auburn, however, has made inroads on that front. Chizik has gotten commitments from three of the top 10 players in the state: Bessemer linebacker LaDarius Owens, Springville wide receiver Jeremy Richardson and Ariton defensive end Craig Sanders.
The Tigers have not been shy about targeting big-name prospects. Dyer is the No. 3 running back in the country, according to Rivals, although he is ESPN.com’s No. 1 overall back. He is Auburn’s first five-star offensive recruit since Brandon Jacobs in 2003.
The two top running backs in Rivals’ rankings — Lache Seastrunk of Temple, Texas, and Marcus Lattimore of Duncan, S.C. — have Auburn on their radar heading into the final 2 1/2 months of the recruiting season.
That’s not to say Chizik doesn’t have an uphill battle on the horizon. The Tigers remain short on scholarship players, going through this season with only 75, well short of the NCAA limit of 85.
The Tigers signed 22 in their last class, although only 20 count against the yearly scholarship limit of 25, because linebacker Eltoro Freeman and running back Onterio McCalebb — two mid-year enrollees — count against the 2008 class.
That allows Chizik and his staff the opportunity to add five players as mid-year enrollees this January and count them against the 2009 class to bring it up to the full complement allowed by the NCAA.
“Because of the limitations, we have to be good about how many we can count back,” Chizik said. “Strategically, we’re going to have to be right on with every decision we make recruiting-wise. When we’re bringing them in. How many we bring in. We’ve got a lot of scholarships to fill.”
The staff already has targeted offensive tackle as a priority position and would like to get someone enrolled by the winter to get a head start on replacing senior right tackle Andrew McCain, the only lineman from a thin group who will exhaust his eligibility after this season.
Chizik hasn’t ruled out going the junior college route to fill that need. The Tigers also could get help from a prep school player or a high school senior who graduates early.
“Again, it’s got to be the perfect fit,” Chizik said. “But we know we need that. Maybe two offensive linemen in January. But that one stands out really above the rest.”
Auburn’s success on the field has helped the situation. With seven wins, the Tigers will return to a bowl game after a one-year absence. And with depth scarce across the roster, Chizik thinks recruits are seeing a quicker path to get on the field.
“It’s opportunity,” Chizik said. “And the future is very bright here. And I think everybody is seeing that.”