How Gus Malzahn, Auburn Dominate Recruiting in the State of Georgia

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How Gus Malzahn, Auburn Dominate Recruiting in the State of Georgia
Todd J. Van Emst/Associated Press
Gus Malzahn on National Signing Day 2013

Two years ago, a picture of an MSNBC map incorrectly placing Auburn University in northern Georgia made the rounds online.  

This was obviously a mistake in geography, but looking at the makeup of Gus Malzahn's latest recruiting classes you can understand why it was made.

While Georgia has 69 in-state players on its current roster, Auburn's influence in the state is growing with 25 Tigers who call Georgia their home state.

"Georgia is very important to our success here," Malzahn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Carvell. "If you look back at the championship-type teams we’ve had at Auburn, we’ve had a lot of players from the state of Georgia. We’re going to continue to recruit that state very hard."

Through its close proximity and close relationships with some of the top players in the state, Auburn is having even more success in Georgia than the powerhouse Bulldogs.

In 2014, home-state power Georgia, finished with 11 in-state signees, but let 10 Peach State natives, including 4-star cornerback Nick Ruffin, cross the border to play for Malzahn on the Plains. 

Recruiting the Peach State is nothing new for Auburn. One could make a dominant All-Star team of former Tigers from Georgia—Cam Newton, James Brooks, Karsten Bailey, Steve Wallace, Tracy Rocker, Takeo Spikes and Carlos Rogers, just to name a few.

But Malzahn's staff has put more of an emphasis on recruiting Georgia than previous regimes, and for good reason.

From the talent-rich center of Atlanta to the state's football-crazed southern region, Georgia consistently puts out a much higher level of talent than the battleground state of Alabama:

Auburn vs. UGA: Signing Georgia's (4-star and 5-star) Recruits
UGA Auburn
2015 4 4
2014 6 7
2013 8 2
2012 4 2
2011 9 4
2010 9 3

247Sports (2015: commitments)

“There’s no reason for these Alabama schools not to come over and try to pluck from a good tree," said Welton Coffey, who was the head coach of Auburn cornerback Kalvaraz Bessent at Camden County High School. "The football talent in Georgia is great, but the Bulldogs can’t get all of them."

Auburn takes full advantage of its close proximity to Georgia—Jordan-Hare Stadium sits less than 30 miles west of the Alabama-Georgia border—but it also maintains close relationships with the players of Georgia.

“I think it’s a testimony to the guys who come out and recruit here," Coffey said. "When you have guys who come out and develop relationships with these kids, I think their honesty and being candid with the players have a lot to do with it."

One of Auburn's key figures in developing relationships with Georgia high school players is assistant coach Rodney Garner. His wealth of experience on both sides of the state line—as a player at Auburn and a coach at Georgia—has been invaluable to Malzahn's efforts in the Atlanta area. 

John Bazemore/Associated Press

“[Garner] knows the lay of the land in the state extremely well," 247Sports' Keith Niebuhr said. "Because he worked at Georgia so many years, he knows what their key selling points are and how to attack those points, while also trying to accentuate the positives of Auburn."

Like Garner, some of the series' biggest icons played significant roles on both sides. Legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley was an Auburn graduate, and legendary Auburn head coach Pat Dye was a Georgia graduate.

Niebuhr said Garner and the rest of his fellow coaches' success in Georgia is based on their understanding of what draws Georgia recruits, especially those from smaller towns, to Auburn.

"Auburn’s current regime has done a great job of identifying kids that fit what they do and also fit their personality," Niebuhr said. "They sell the family atmosphere extremely well, and that resonates well a lot in Georgia. You have the Atlanta kids, but you also have a lot of the more rural kids who are big on family and home."

Sometimes those family connections run a little deeper for some recruits.

Class of 2014 signee Dontavius Russell flipped from Georgia to Auburn last December after Garner's move back to the Plains, and his high school head coach believes Russell's Auburn heritage played a factor in the change of heart.

Dontavius has grown up an Auburn fan his whole life," former Carrollton High School head coach Rayvon Teague told Carvell. "His uncle (1987-90 safety Dennis Wallace) played at Auburn. He and his parents are big Auburn fans...Coach Garner and Auburn never stopped recruiting him."

The Tigers, who also signed the son of former Auburn defensive lineman Myron Burton, have another family connection in Georgia for this upcoming recruiting class.

"Four-star cornerback Darius Slayton from Greater Atlanta Christian in Norcross, is a guy who's got ties to the Auburn program," Niebuhr said. "His cousin (1988-91 linebacker Darrell Crawford) played there. He's pretty high on the Tigers."

For some Georgia recruits who did not have the familiar connection with Auburn, the Tigers were able to make an impact in their recruitment by targeting them early in the process and getting a jump on the in-state Bulldogs.

"Sometimes the Bulldogs are after some of these kids strongly and are battling these out-of-state schools," Coffey said. "But there are some guys where Georgia does not have them as high up on their recruiting lists for whatever reason."

This was the case for Andrew Williams, another class of 2014 signee for the Tigers. The 4-star defensive end from McDonough made three separate unofficial visits to Auburn last summer before making his first visit to Athens. 

247Sports

After a busy winter of visits to Auburn, Georgia and Clemson, Williams put on the orange and blue hat on national signing day.

"I just followed my heart, and everything about Auburn was right," Williams said. "It was really hard though. The short time Georgia had to get at me, they did the best. If they had longer time, they’d have been the ones to probably get me."

Looking ahead to the recruiting class of 2015, Auburn has a slim early lead on Georgia for the Peach State's finest picks. 

Malzahn and company have commitments from seven of Georgia's top high school stars and one from Jovon Robinson, a Tennessee native who has restarted his recruitment at Georgia Military College as the nation's No. 1 junior college player.

Georgia currently has six in-state commitments, but its top pledge, 5-star athlete Terry Godwin, has visited Auburn twice since committing to the Bulldogs.

"Getting to meet all of the coaches, everything was fun," Godwin told 247Sports' Kipp Adams (subscription required) during his Big Cat Weekend visit. "It was just a great day. It is one big family. They were just giving me more information on how they would give me the ball."

Auburn will hope to maintain that close relationship with Godwin and the rest of their targets from Georgia, including the nation's No. 1 overall recruit Trent Thompson, throughout the summer in what will be another yearlong border war on the recruiting trail.

"Auburn's right there, so close to everything in Georgia," Niebuhr said. "There’s talent in Georgia, and you are close to the talent. Success breeds more success."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.

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