The key offseason storyline for Auburn: Who will be the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2017? Gus Malzahn hopes to have answered that question with arguably the leading recruit of his latest class, which stands at 20 players as we approach National Signing Day on Wednesday.
Jarrett Stidham, who enrolled at Auburn earlier this month, is the most important recruit in this year’s class. Stidham, considered the nation’s top junior-college recruit in 2016 despite attending a school – McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas – that doesn’t have a football team, last played for Baylor in 2015, when he completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
If Stidham happens to supplant returnee Sean White as Auburn’s starter, the Tigers will have filled their top need. Their other top positions of need are offensive line and defensive back, and Malzahn appears to have addressed both of them with this class.
On the offensive line, Auburn has brought in Calvin Ashley, Austin Troxell and Nick Brahms. In the secondary, cornerback Traivon Leonard and safeties Carlito Gonzalez and Jordyn Peters have taken their talents to the Plains.
On the surface, Auburn’s 2017 recruiting class looks potentially as strong as the 2014 group, which included current starters Braden Smith, Kam Pettway and White. In light of the fact that the Tigers have gone just 23-16 over the last three seasons while failing to reach the SEC Championship Game, this year’s recruiting class is the most important one of Malzahn’s Auburn career.
SEC class rank: 5th
Overall class rank: 10th
Did the Tigers own the state? Yes. Auburn has brought in six of the top 20 recruits from the state of Alabama. They include the state’s No. 2 prospect – inside linebacker Tadarian Moultry – and Troxell, who is ranked No. 5.
To put Auburn’s haul in perspective, Alabama has brought in only four of the state’s top 20 prospects, including outside linebacker Markail Benton (ranked No. 6). Plus, six of Auburn’s 10 in-state recruits are ranked 15th or higher.
Top player: The top player in Auburn’s class is Ashley, the Tigers’ only 5-star recruit this year. The offensive tackle prospect has been so pro-Auburn, he committed to the Tigers on May 30, 2015.
Ashley is a necessary addition for Auburn because the Tigers are losing offensive linemen Alex Kozan, Robert Leff and Xavier Dampeer. Ashley, a 6-6, 310-pounder out of Washington, D.C., should be able to take over for Leff at right tackle.
Still chasing: The top player the Tigers are still trying to land is Markaviest Bryant, a 4-star weakside defensive end prospect from Cordele, Ga., who is also being aggressively pursued by Georgia and LSU.
Best unit: Auburn appears to have done well with landing linebacker prospects. Moultry is the state’s best prospect at that position, and Kenney Britt, a 6-foot, 232-pounder out of Oxford, Ala., is not far behind. In addition, the running back class warrants honorable mention because the trio of Devan Barrett, Alaric Williams and Octavius Matthews could give Auburn some much needed depth behind Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
Biggest area of need filled: Stidham fills Auburn’s biggest area of need nearly by default. Ex-JUCO QB John Franklin III has proven he can run but still hasn’t shown he can pass in the SEC. White has demonstrated that he can be quite an accurate passer, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.
The jury is still out on what Woody Barrett or Tyler Queen can do. It’s true that Stidham compiled his Baylor numbers against some of the worst Power 5 defenses in the country, but he can’t be any worse than any other Auburn QB on the roster.
Plus, it remains to be seen how Auburn’s offense will change under new coordinator Chip Lindsey. If Stidham ends up being the starter, you can be sure that the Tigers won’t throw the ball only 30 percent of the time like they did under Malzahn and Lindsey’s predecessor, Rhett Lashlee.
Better or worse than last year? Led by defensive lineman Marlon Davidson and wide receivers Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers, 11 players in Auburn’s 24-member 2016 recruiting class made on-field contributions last season. Plus last year’s class, which matches this year’s group with a No. 5 ranking in the SEC, was one spot better nationally at No. 9.
Plus, the individual average ranking of each 2016 recruit was higher than that of their year’s class, .9072, compared to .8941. However, with four or five recruits still on the Tigers’ radar, Auburn’s player and overall recruiting rankings could definitely change between now and Wednesday.
If you’re an Auburn fan, you’re hoping that Malzahn’s ability to secure last-minute commitments is better than his aptitude for picking the Tigers’ last two starting quarterbacks — White and Jeremy Johnson. Malzahn still has a chance to prevent National Signing Day from turning into National Whining Day among Tigers faithful.