This is always the time of year I sit back and reflect on a recruiting season that has now been put to bed. As I do that this time around it's hard not to take a moment to marvel at the job done by the Auburn coaching staff this recruiting season. On Wednesday the Tigers signed 30 players to letters of intent with Auburn University with several of the players designated to start their careers at either a prep school or junior college. To put the job Auburn did into perspective the Tigers only brought in 36 players for official visits and 26 of those players signed with Auburn. Four of the players who didn't sign with the Tigers never received offers. That means that when everything is taken into account Auburn signed 26 of a possible 32 players brought in for official visits.
Once everything was tabulated from around the country Scout.com ranked Auburn's class as the sixth-best in the country and that's no surprise to me after having a chance to watch many of the players in person or on film in the past 12 months.
Going into a new year of recruiting last spring Auburn's coaches had several key areas they were looking to shore up on signing day and perhaps none was as a big as up front on the offensive line. Facing the prospects of losing four starters off the 2006 team coach Hugh Nall and the entire staff searched high and low for top offensive line prospects and came back with the best group of linemen in the country. Arkansas standout Lee Ziemba, Hoover's Ryan Pugh, Mississippi's Chaz Ramsey, Florida's Kyle Coulahan and Brewton all-star Jared Cooper form perhaps the top offensive line class ever signed by Auburn on paper and now all they have to do it live up to the hype. That won't be easy considering the rankings but all five are hard workers and have already become good friends off the field during the recruiting process. That alone should make them a more cohesive unit when they put on the orange and blue for the first time next fall.
Ryan Pugh is the number two center in the country as rated by Scout.com.
If the offensive line wasn't the biggest need then it would have to be at the safety position where the Tigers are short on talent and depth. The depth situation will be ever shorter this spring with back-up Lorenzo Ferguson out because of shoulder surgery. With very few safeties in the mix getting top target Michael McNeil was essential to the class. Alabama's top prospect by most recruiting services and scouts, McNeil grew up a fan of Florida State and most assumed he would eventually be a Seminole but Auburn's James Willis had other ideas.
In his first year on the staff after taking over for Joe Whitt, Willis had the job of filling Whitt's shoes in Mobile where the coach had been so good over the years recruiting for the Tigers. Picking up where Whitt left off McNeil says Willis immediately made him feel at ease during the recruiting process. Coach Will Muschamp joined in on the recruiting of McNeil later to show him how much he was needed on the Auburn campus. In the end the lure of playing at Auburn was too much for McNeil and credit Willis and Muschamp for making it happen. Willis finished off a very good year in the Mobile area by also landing Ryan Williams and Nick Fairley. Not a bad year indeed for his first on the job.
Another area of need was at the linebacker position where the Tigers lost three seniors off last year's team and two that were the heart and soul of the defense. Auburn answered its need in a resounding way as Eltoro Freeman, Josh Bynes, Adam Herring and Carlton Johnson form a class that people could be talking about for years to come. One of the best football players I have seen in person in many years, Freeman is a human wrecking ball at linebacker and plays with an intensity that is rarely seen by a high school player. A very selfless player that also played some fullback for Benjamin Russell this season, Freeman could be a player to watch early in his Auburn career.
The same is true of Bynes. A big, physical linebacker, Bynes is the type of player that Muschamp targeted going into the recruiting season. Wanting a more physical linebacker to be able to fill the holes if the Tigers use some 3-4 defenses, Bynes gives them just that and could play in the 230-pound range as a freshman. Add in the very smart and physical Herring and the ultra-athletic Johnson and you have four players that should make Willis smile a lot in the coming years.
Losing kickers John Vaughn and Matt Clark the position of place kicker was also a big need. After watching videos of Auburn signee Wes Byrum I am firmly convinced that at least Clark's job is in good hands. You never really know how a kicker will respond when moving up from the high school ranks to the college game because I still have vivid memories of watching Kevin Gentle kick at Guntersville but Byrum's leg strength and his ability to kick the ball out of the endzone are too much to ignore. Clark's importance to Auburn's success last year can't be overstated and Byrum has the chance to step right into his shoes and deliver for coach Eddie Gran's special teams. I predict that no freshman will have as much influence for Auburn next season than Byrum.
When looking at the class from top to bottom it is balanced and it's very possible you could field a full team on both sides of the ball from the class alone. Every position is present and accounted for, something that shows that Auburn's program is on good footing heading into the future. One of the winningest programs in the country the last five years Auburn should stay right there over the next five thanks to classes like the one signed on Wednesday.