On Wednesday at 8 a.m. local time, wherever they are located, football prospects began signing scholarship papers to officially end the recruiting process. When all is said and done on signing day, Coach Tommy Tuberville's Tigers are expected to sign more than 20 players from across the Southeast.
Offensively, there is no higher priority in this class than on the offensive front. The good news for position coach Hugh Nall is that the Tigers are expected to sign the South's most highly regarded offensive lineman, 6-5, 285 tackle Leon Hart from Spring Valley High in Columbia, S.C.
The battle for Hart went down to less than a week before signing day when the talented tackle said he was going to be an Auburn Tiger. "I decided to follow my heart and my heart tells me that I want to attend Auburn," Hart told Inside the Auburn Tigers. "It is a great feeling."
Hart's high school coach, Jimmy Noonan, said that his star lineman feels good about the decision to attend Auburn. "Gosh, I am just happy to see the kid happy," Noonan said.
Leon Hart is shown on the set of Countdown To Signing Day television show.
The Spring Valley High coach notes that Auburn is getting a player talented enough to challenge for immediately playing time at the college level. "Obviously, the SEC is loaded with athletic defensive ends and he is going to have to get his feet wet very early, but he is the type of kid who puts enough pressure on himself that it won't take long," Noonan said.
Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for TheInsiders.com, said that the first team high school All-American is a major recruiting prize for the Tigers. "I like the way he comes off the football," Newberg said. "He is a strong drive blocker. Like most young offensive linemen, he will need to work on his pass blocking, but he is a tremendous prospect. He is a tough football player with the ability to play either tackle or guard."
Other offensive linemen expected to join Hart in the 2004 recruiting class are 505m 262 Antwoin Daniels from Mary Persons High in Forysth, Ga., and a pair of in-state prospects, 6-3, 280 Jason Bosley from Grissom High in Huntsville and 6-6 3/4, 260 John Watts from Russellville High.
Although half of the offensive line commitments are from in-state, overall the focus on Auburn recruiting has been outside of Alabama. One exception has been at Thompson High, where the Tigers are trying to sign safety Tony Bell, who is keeping Auburn and Georgia guessing going into signing day. He said he has narrowed his list of finalists to just the Tigers and Bulldogs after dropping LSU and Tennessee from the mix.
The Tigers picked up two very early quarterback commitments from players who stood out at AU summer camps and found a pair of Georgians in a year in which the state of Alabama was short on QB talent. Calvin Booker is a 6-3, 205-pounder who led Mays High of Atlanta into the state playoffs with his strong right arm. Blake Field, a 6-2, 180-pounder, is a coach's son who transferred from Cairo, Ga., High to North Florida Christian in Tallahassee for his senior season. Like Booker, he had an impressive season after committing prior to the start of his senior year.
Auburn also looked out of state for help at the running back spots. Michael McLaughlin from state champion Wayne County High in Waynesboro, Miss., is an athletic fullback who picked the Tigers over Nebraska and others.
Smooth and productive tailback Brad Lester was Auburn's second verbal commitment last July and the 5-11, 183-pounder showed he was one of the state's best backs as a senior for Parkview High.
One of the most interesting commitments in the 2004 class is from speedy tailback Jerald Watson from Central Catholic High in Morgan City, La. He is one of the fastest high school athletes in the country and will help meet Tuberville's desire to add more breakaway speed into the AU lineup. Watson was a very early LSU commitment before reconsidering and pledging to AU.
Signing a tight end was a high priority and the late commitment Darrell Strong of Plantation High seemed to be good news. However, on signing day he switched to Pitt where he had committed last summer, which told him they would give him a chance to be a quarterback there.
Defensively, the Tigers have added a group of good-looking athletes who can run very well, a trademark of Tuberville's signing classes. Juco star Christopher Browder, a 6-5, 240-pounder from Camden, Ala., who played at Southwest Mississippi Community College, has the chance to come in and be an immediate impact player. He will be a sophomore in eligibility in 2004.
More help on the defensive front is expected from an athletic group of prospects that includes 6-3, 280 Tyronne Green from Woodham High in Pensacola, Fla., 6-4, 260 Korey Raymond from East St. John High in Reserve, La., and defensive tackle Pat Sims from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Another defensive lineman the Tigers have been recruiting, Neil Brown from Buford, Ga., High, signed with Auburn on Wednesday after narrowing his picks to the Tigers and Duke. He had offers from more than 30 colleges.
The Tigers are expected to sign a pair of in-state linebacker prospects--6-1, 207 Courtney Harden of Colbert County High and 6-0 184 Merrill Johnson from Choctaw County High. Harden was the first high school senior to publically commit to the Tigers last summer. Like Harden, Johnson was a standout at a summer camp at AU.
Octavious Balkcom, a 6-3, 230 linebacker from Early County High in Blakely, Ga., is expected to be in this signee class as is another prospect who got plenty of recruiting attention--6-1 1/2, 193 Steve Gandy from Wayne County High in Waynesboro, Miss.
Gandy is a player who could begin his college career in the secondary where the Tigers are expected to add Tristan Davis from Tri-Cities High in East Point, Ga. Another possibility in the secondary is 5-10, 180 speedster Anthony Campbell from Hialeah, Fla., High. He is a player who could get a look on offense, too, as well as a return man.
Another speedster in the group is 6-0, 165 James Swinton from Tucker, Ga., High, who picked the Tigers last summer.
Talented lineman Greg Smith from Tyner High in Chattanooga, a sign-to-place verbal to the Tigers, committed in December but may try to skip the juco route and go to Middle Tennessee State University.
The Tigers may also sign Blount High linebacker Chris Evans, 6-0, 217, who took an official visit to Auburn in January. He has also been considering North Carolina State.