Auburn made headlines on national signing day for the wrong reasons.
Sure, the Tigers landed 4-star defensive end Andrew Williams and 4-star offensive lineman Braden Smith in the annual recruiting holiday, both of whom helped solidify the nation's No. 6 class for second-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
But there was "that one who got away."
In the case of the Tigers it was 5-star linebacker Rashaan Evans from Auburn (Ala.) High School, who spurned his hometown school in favor of the intra-state rival. What's more is that an Auburn bio page for Evans leaked on the Internet shortly before he announced his decision to sign with Alabama. That's not exactly the biggest deal in the world. In this day and age of immediate information, those pages need to be pre-built. It only becomes embarrassing when they become public.
What shouldn't be embarrassing is this defensive class for Malzahn, because Evans or not, this group can play.
Williams joins 4-star speed rusher Justin Thornton at the defensive end spot, giving defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson loads of depth behind Carl Lawson, LaDarius Owens and Elijah Daniel.
“He [Thornton] is long and athletic, an edge guy," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said according to quotes released by Auburn. "He’s got to get bigger and stronger. He has a chance to be a real force coming off the edge."
The combination of speed off the edge and bigger, athletic defensive ends allows Johnson to mix and match pieces based on situations.
Daniel dropped down to defensive tackle in passing situations in 2013, and recently-graduate defensive lineman Nosa Eguae dropped down to tackle full time in the middle of the season. Johnson has proven that he can mix and match pieces based on skill and situation, and Auburn has tons of skill to work with in any given situation at defensive end.
Johnson likes a bigger defensive end to play on the strong side, and he got one in this class with 5-star defensive end DaVonte Lambert. The 6'3", 278-pounder from Georgia Military College is rated as the top defensive end junior college, and can be that strong side force against the run from the moment he steps foot on campus.
"On first and second down, he can be a really strong run-stopping defensive end," Garner said in quotes released by Auburn. "In a third-down situation you can put him inside and create mismatches on pass rush. He has a lot of versatility."
Lambert can also drop down and play tackle if needed, where Auburn returns three of four members of its final two-deep depth chart including rising senior Gabe Wright.
Championships are not only won up front, but they're won with the ability to keep quality defensive linemen fresh for four quarters and up to 14 games. Auburn had that depth last year, and not only replaced pieces that left, but added even more depth to the mix for the 2014 season.
Evans' absence at outside linebacker will be felt, because he was set to be an instant-impact player, but one player doesn't break a class. In fact, there's going to be some competition for Evans at Auburn based on some of this recruiting class and the way two incumbents played down the stretch.
Tre' Williams is a 5-star prospect and the top-ranked inside linebacker in the nation. The 6'3", 237-pounder seemed to get lost in the Evans hoopla on national signing day, but is known as a big-hitter with athleticism that should help him compete for playing time right away.
"We felt like he was the top linebacker in this class, and he’s a guy that’s been with us, committed to us, had opportunities to go wherever he wanted and stayed with us," Malzahn said in quotes released by Auburn. "He was really a big key to this signing class."
Kris Frost can play both "Sam" and "Will" linebacker in Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme, and had the best game of his career in the 34-31 loss to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game with seven tackles. Starting "Will" linebacker Cassanova McKinzy did as well, notching a team-high nine tackles and a half-sack in the title tilt, finishing with a team-high 75 tackles on the season.
Johnson's defense is more reliant on athleticism from its linebackers than it is on fit, and Auburn has loads of athleticism at linebacker and reason to be optimistic from the players already on campus.
In the secondary, Auburn absolutely loaded up.
The SEC's second-worst pass-defense will get instant relief in the form of Derrick Moncrief—a 6'3", 226-pound safety from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who is the top junior college safety prospect in the country. With boundary safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White gone, he'll have the chance to step in immediately.
Cornerback Chris Davis is gone, but 4-star prospects Nick Ruffin, Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts all signed on the dotted line on Wednesday to rebuild and add depth to what was a suspect secondary in 2013. The farther you get away from the snap, the better chance you have to play right away. All three could join the mix in 2014.
Don't get blinded by the Evans drama. This Auburn' class is not only highly-ranked, it will be highly-effective—particularly on the defensive side of the football.