Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Auburn Recruiting Review: Lessons Learned from '06 and '07 Classes Should Help Tigers

Gene Chizik just wrapped his first full recruiting year at Auburn and it appears to be much better than what he inherited from Tommy Tuberville. The 2006 and 2007 clases were largely a disappointment on the Plains and may have been a reason why Tuberville was let eventually let go.

To get some more insight into what happened with these classes, I contacted War Blog Eagle.

Q: Looking back to 2006, both Rivals and Scout ranked Auburn’s class in the top 10. Yet Tommy Tuberville was fired three years later. What happened with this class?

A: The same thing that happened with nearly all of Tuberville's classes: it was gutted by academic casualties and high-profile busts. Six of its 25 signees failed to qualify--only one would ever play a down for Auburn--and included in the remaining 19 were whiffs like five-star JUCO DT Greg Smith, top 100 WR Tim Hawthorne, Elite 11 QB Neil Caudle.

Tubby developed a not-undeserved reputation for finding overlooked sleepers--also included in this class were unheralded future starters like Byron Isom, Mike Blanc, and Zac Etheridge--but in his last few years on the trail, his signees' academic track record and failure to live up to the hype undid whatever good work he and his staff managed in the sleeper department.

Q: Who were the biggest surprises of the 2006 class?

A: On the positive side, Etheridge arrived as a three-star out of Troy whose next-best offer was either Oklahoma St. or (weirdly) Illinois. He would go on to win the starting strong safety job as a redshirt freshman in 2007 and make multiple Freshman All-SEC teams and a handful of freshman All-American teams.

His consistent presence was one of the highlights of both the 2008 and 2009 defenses as he started 33 out of 34 games before possibly having his career ended in a scary neck injury in last year's meeting with Ole Miss.

On the negative side, I'm not sure Auburn fans would have picked any signee as more of a sure thing that spring than Hawthorne, a tall and rangy wideout out of Homewood with gushing approval from both Rivals and Scout who drew raves the moment he set foot on the Tigers' practice field.

But a series of injuries and off-field incidents plagued him, and even when healthy Hawthorne was never able to translate his physical gifts into production. He graduated last December and left without having caught more than 8 passes in a season.

Q: Switching to 2007, Scout had Kodi Burns as five star recruit at QB. Why do you think he has never panned out at the position?

A: Burns came to Auburn as a tremendous athlete with a powerful arm and the shiftiest pair of feet Auburn had seen since Dameyune Craig. But he also needed a lot of guidance honing his throwing mechanics and confidence in the position, and his first two critical seasons at Auburn he didn't get it.

2007 OC Al Borges burned his redshirt using Burns as a Wildcatesque change of pace while never treating him seriously as a passer, and successor Tony Franklin yo-yoed Burns in and out of the lineup while appearing to favor handpicked JUCO rival Chris Todd.

Franklin's midseason departure meant that Burns then had to learn from his third QB coach in two seasons in Steve Ensminger, never any Auburn fan's idea of a quarterback guru. Burns continued to show flashes of ability down the 2008 stretch, but his mechanics and accuracy never developed to the point where he would have been a successful operator of Gus Malzahn's offense.

Now, whether Burns could have become that QB if he's had the right coaching is a matter of some debate amongst Auburn fans. Personally, I think Malzahn really could have done something with him if he'd been around back in '07, but in retrospect it was always going to be dicey and the coaching carousel unfortunately meant Burns's odds were even longer; too long, as it's turned out.

Q: Whatever happened to five star recruits Enrique Davis and Greg Smith?

A: Davis was yet another academic casualty, winding up in prep school (if I remember correctly) after signing as one of Rivals' top 40 players overall in 2007. But the hire of Franklin and the arrival of the spread at Auburn scared him off when it came time to re-sign the next spring, and he went to Ole Miss instead.

Auburn may have actually been better off, as it turns out; as I think anyone who follows the SEC knows by now, he's been a near-total bust with the Rebels.

Smith has become the classic go-to "Hey, remember that guy?" trivia question for Auburn fans recalling the JUCO-heavy, bust- laden late Tuberville recruiting era. Smith arrived on campus after years of hype (such that Tubby dubbed him the "Internet King") and promptly failed to live up to any of it, never rising above the bottom rungs of the depth chart and transferring to an NAIA school (I believe) after a year.

Q: Which recruiting site rankings do you use and trust more?

A: Like everyone else, I default to Rivals. But I tend to think Scout has a much better read on JUCO prospects, and my sense is that a consensus appraisal from all three major services (meaning the traditional two and ESPN) is probably the most accurate gauge of all. I'd trust a recruit's offer sheet before I trusted any of the rankings, though, I have to say.

In terms of team rankings, all three are seriously flawed; ESPN doesn't count JUCO or prep school prospects at all, but Rivals and Scout assign too much weight to the total number of recruits in a class and not enough to the average quality of each recruit.

Q: For an overall recruiting philosophy, how has it changed under Chizik as opposed to Tuberville?

A: Geographically speaking, it honestly hasn't changed that much. Chizik's first class followed the same pattern as Tubby's better ones: a handful of top-shelf in-state recruits, some sleepers plucked from the quieter areas in the state, and then a selection of big out-of-state targets to really flesh out the class.

Chizik's talked a lot about returning Auburn's recruiting to its in-state roots, but I don't think this most recent class has been all that different in terms of demographics than Tubby's first several classes or quality 2007 haul.

However, there's been a big difference between Chizik's first full-cycle effort and Tubby's last couple of classes in terms of the quality of recruit pursued. His last couple of years, Tubby seemed content to only chase after hotly-contested recruits if they were in-state, only leaving Alabama to look for some of his prized sleeper candidates.

This might have worked out OK if not for Saban's arrival and subsequent clean sweep of the state's top recruits in both '08 and '09, resulting in first Tubby's disastrous 2008 group (featuring zero consensus Rivals/Scout four-stars and a Rivals team ranking in the 30s when adjusted in the fall for academic casualties) and a ton of work for Chizik to do when he took over the '09 group.

Chizik, on the other hand, has proven in his short time at the helm to be perfectly willing to challenge for the Southeast's best talent--claiming Trovon Reed out of Louisiana, Jeff Whitaker out of Georgia, Michael Dyer out of Arkansas, etc. It's not different from Tubby in his prime, but combine that with less of a reliance on grades risks, and it's created a huge difference in Auburn's results.

Q: Is the state of Alabama first priority for recruiting or does Auburn like to go wherever the talent is?

A: Six in one, half-dozen in the other. Alabama's presence and natural "state school" advantage means Auburn's always going to have to look out of state (particularly in west Georgia) to sign a full class of SEC-grade talent. But at the same time, Alabama also produces enough talent as a state that between the occasional head-to-head recruiting win against the Tide and prospects Alabama may have overlooked. It's well worth Auburn's while to pay attention to the state's home-grown recruits as well.

Q: Can Auburn truly take all 32 guys from this year’s class or will there be some greyshirts and non qualifiers?

A: Auburn enrolled five signees in January and back-counted them into the 2009 class, but that still means 27 signees left over and two that will have to depart the class before fall camp.

Although this class isn't anything like Tubby's--where you could guarantee a half-dozen signees would be JUCO-bound, if not more--there are three or four players who are rumored (or media-confirmed) to have potential qualification issues. Chizik said in his Signing Day press conference that there was "a plan" in place in the event of extra qualifiers, which I have to assume means grayshirts, but I'll be very surprised if Auburn has to go that route--we always

Q: Which player just signed are you most excited about for next year?

A: JUCO quarterback and former Tebow heir apparent Cameron Newton has the athleticism to take Malzahn's offense from the "very, very good" level to the "utterly sick" level, but until he proves he can throw the ball as accurately as the offense needs him to I'll have to stick with Michael Dyer.

Auburn earned the nickname Running Back U for a reason, and with Dyer rated either the No. 1 or No. 2 back in the country by all three services, there's a good chance he's going to leave school as the latest in a long line of Tiger superstars at that position.

My Thoughts on Auburn Recruiting:
Some people say Tuberville’s last of recruiting over the final few years was his downfall, but I think it was the player development once they got on campus that was the ultimate mea culpa.

It is true that Auburn seemed to shy away from big time, in state prospects once Nick Saban arrived at Alabama, but I agree with War Blog Eagle that Auburn has never recruiting heavily in state.

The Tigers use Georgia as their ‘1A’ in recruiting territories and 2010 was no different landing several prospects the metro Atlanta area and the aforementioned Jeff Whitaker out of Warner Robins.

And some of the great players of recent memory have come from Georgia as well. I sat in a job interview in Cartersville, GA where the manager had one picture of his son and one of Ronnie Brown on his desk.

If this 2010 class can be developed better than classes of years past, then the future for Auburn football looks much brighter than it did at this time two years ago.

Thanks again to War Blog Eagle for their insight.

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