When Gus Malzahn took over for Gene Chizik as the Auburn Tigers' head coach, his first overarching mission was clear: save a sinking recruiting class.
After a 2012 season that saw Auburn sink from preseason conference-championship contender to SEC laughing stock, that road wasn't the easiest to climb. And with plenty of prospects skeptical about the new Tigers regime, Malzahn not only had to convince new prospects to come down South, but he also had to work on keeping the ones who had previously committed to the school.
In the end, Auburn walked away from National Signing Day this year more than happy with its haul. The school lost 5-star linebacker Reuben Foster to Alabama, but still managed to finish with the No. 10 overall recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports.
Included in Malzahn's haul were top-flight recruits on both sides of the ball, but especially on the defensive line.
So which of his young freshman are the readiest to make an instant impact? Here is a look at a few guys that Tigers fans should look out for in 2013.
Montravius Adams (DT)
Among the Tigers' biggest coups on National Signing Day, Adams was almost unquestionably the biggest—literally and figuratively. A hulking, 5-star defensive tackle prospect, Adams was considered by 247Sports' composite rankings to be the 10th-best player in the Class of 2013.
Based on the way he performed at Dooley County (Ga.) High School, it's not hard to see why. Adams is an explosive force of nature who fires low off the ball and has arguably the best first step among defensive tackles in this class. That quickness allows him to wreak havoc consistently in the backfield, and at 6'3" and 281 pounds, Adams has the pure strength to excel when engaged as well.
The only problem is that Adams is a pretty raw prospect. He was able to dominate by the sheer force of his physicality in high school, oftentimes overpowering offensive linemen who simply were not suited for someone of his caliber.
That won't be the case at Auburn. Hulking interior forces are par for the course on SEC Saturdays, and Adams will simply be the next in an extremely long line of defensive studs. He'll need to work on polishing his footwork and almost completely overhaul his lack of hand usage at the next level.
However, Adams will get plenty of opportunities from Malzahn to prove his worth. He's too talented and too physically imposing not to get significant playing time. How Adams handles the rigors of the Tigers' offseason program will almost certainly determine whether that time on the field is as a starter or a specialty rusher.
If his high school game tape means anything, smart money is on the former.
Carl Lawson (DE)
If Adams is looking for a partner in crime for the next few seasons, he won't have to look that far. While Adams comes in with a top-10 pedigree, it may ultimately be Lawson who has the biggest impact among Tigers freshmen.
A 5-star defensive end out of Milton (Ga.) High School, Lawson is one of the top edge-rushers in the country. And if it wouldn't have been for Robert Nkemdiche, who has all the makings of a Jadeveon Clowney instant-impact superstar, Lawson may have wound up as a top-five prospect.
As it stands, the future Auburn defensive end had to settle for being ranked as the No. 21 overall prospect, per 247Sports' composite rankings. That's obviously not a degradation in any way, but surprisingly enough, the national hype meter declines (at least a little bit) when prospects fall outside of the top-10.
Luckily, Lawson has all the tools to make college football fans know his name quite well as a freshman. Listed at 6'3 and 245 pounds, Lawson already has enough size to be an every-down defensive end in the SEC.
But what's most impressive about this young man is his explosiveness. Other than Nkemdiche, Lawson is the quickest lineman in this class, and his initial burst off the ball is already elite. He creates constant chaos for opposing quarterbacks, but he doesn't sell himself out against the run—a rarity for elite pass-rushers at this age.
Where Lawson struggles is that sometimes his aggressiveness gets the best of him. He's susceptible to losing the ball, especially on misdirection plays, which is something Malzahn will undoubtedly focus on early in his career.
Like Adams, Lawson will have to prove himself in an open competition. But if the two men are starting alongside one another Week 1, there isn't anyone at Auburn who would be shocked if they excelled right away.
Tony Stevens (WR)
Though it would be easy to single-out Elijah Daniel, the Tigers' third 5-star defensive line recruit, one of those players will ultimately be an odd-man out. Daniel is the least-touted (relatively speaking) and needs more polish than Adams or Lawson in order to translate his skill-set to Saturdays.
So, while he may make an impact, it will likely be minimal as a freshman.
On the offensive side of the ball, no Auburn recruit sticks out more than Stevens. A 6'3" receiver whose running stride resembles more of an easy glide than a forceful sprint, Stevens is exactly the type of explosive downfield threat that the Tigers were missing last season. Stevens attacks the ball at its highest point and oftentimes uses his athleticism to corral difficult passes down in the red zone.
The folks at 247 Sports had Stevens ranked as the 16th-best receiver in their composite rankings and labeled him a 4-star recruit. He likely avoided the coveted 5-star distinction due to his extremely wiry frame—he's listed at a generous 175 pounds—and because none of Stevens' skills are ascendant.
Stevens is a prospect who has very few glaring weaknesses, but he isn't going to suddenly turn into Calvin Johnson overnight. Luckily, his all-around skills translate to an instant competitor at the next level. Stevens won't suddenly win a Biletnikoff Award as a freshman, but he should be good for a few big touchdowns in 2013.