War Eagle Extra

Michael Niziolek: Swing and miss in Phenix City could have lasting local impact for Auburn

Central's Markail Benton verbally committed to Alabama on June 10, 2016 at his high school's auditorium.
Central's Markail Benton verbally committed to Alabama on June 10, 2016 at his high school's auditorium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Alabama will have a man on the inside in Phenix City this fall.

Linebacker Markail Benton gave the defending national champions a high profile verbal commitment last week. The 4-star defender picked the Crimson Tide over Auburn and Florida State.

Central coach Jamey DuBose pegged Auburn as the favorite just two short months ago.

“I’m going to be honest, I would have bet a month and a half, two months ago it was going to be Auburn,” DuBose said. “He changed along the way.”

It was the first swing and miss for Auburn on the recruiting trail in recent weeks. The Tigers received verbal commits from the top-rated JUCO running back Octavius Matthews along with a pair of coveted linebackers coming out of spring camp.

Benton, who spent years taking the short 30-minute drive to visit the Plains, was supposed to be the centerpiece of Auburn’s future linebacking corps. It didn’t quite work out that way with Benton spurning the Tigers’ efforts by picking their SEC rival.

Auburn’s coaching staff will go right on to their next target, but the high profile swing and miss will have an impact locally on recruiting.

The voice of an Under Armour All-American could help sway top-area prospects towards Tuscaloosa in the future as Central continues to produce Division I level talent. The number one recruit in the state for 2018 happens to be Benton’s teammate Justyn Ross. The wide receiver already has offers from both Auburn and Alabama.

“There’s no question kids recruit from the inside,” DuBose said. “Those relationships can be important.”

Benton already had a pretty good recruiting pitch to prospective teammates from the stage last week pushing Alabama’s superior facilities and coaching. He also underlined the most important difference between the two programs in recent years — “I mean Alabama wins championships, they win games.”

Relationships aren’t always difference-makers, but there’s no denying perception matters on the recruiting trail.

Auburn landed Central defensive back John Broussard as part of its 2016 recruiting class and it didn’t help the Tigers land Benton. Broussard, who was in the crowd when Benton announced his decision, had a friendly exchange with his former teammate over social media.

“Congrats to my dawg man,” Broussard tweeted. “Just mad ill have to take the iron bowl from ya every year.”

With Alabama owning bragging rights on the field, landing the top prospects on the east side of the state in back-to-back years could have prevented the Crimson Tide from gaining important influence in Auburn’s own backyard.

The Tigers geographic recruiting footprint is much smaller than Alabama’s. Coach Gus Malzahn rarely travels outside Alabama, Georgia or Florida for players with only four high school seniors outside those three states coming to the Plains since 2013.

Auburn can’t afford to give up ground to Alabama in its territory when every inch of the talent-rich state matters.