Auburn Football: 5 Freshmen That Gus Malzahn Can Build Around
In many instances, the first recruiting class for a new head coach is full of playing catch-up and it often results in a less-than-stellar recruiting class. That is because most coaches get hired after the season ends in late November and have only two full months to build a staff and recruit.
It is usually the second class and first full recruiting cycle that a foundation for what a coach wants to do is laid.
Someone forgot to tell Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn that.
After falling as low as No. 28 after being hired, Malzahn and the rest of the Auburn coaching staff hauled in the No. 11 recruiting class in the country on national signing day, according to the 247sports composite rankings. The next closest school in the recruiting rankings that also went through a coaching transition was Arkansas, who was No. 22.
The Tigers may not be done with the 2013 recruiting class, either. Highly touted and 6'7" wide receiver Derrick Griffin may sign with the Tigers this week, after officially visiting the Tigers last weekend. He will likely be a sign-and-place-into-junior-college due to his grade situation.
If he signs, he could rejoin Auburn in 2015.
Not only did Malzahn sign top prospects in the 2013 class, but he laid a foundation that he can build around for the next four to five years.
Here are five freshmen that Malzahn can build around as he attempts to bring the Tigers' football team back to the top of the college football mountaintop.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson
Success begins and ends with quarterback play, especially in Malzahn's high-octane offense. No one knows this fact better than Auburn fans.
They saw what Malzahn can do with a dual-threat QB in 2010.
Malzahn has found a perfect QB to build his offense around in Jeremy Johnson. The state of Alabama's "Mr. Football" will be an immediate factor in Auburn's QB battle when he arrives on campus in August.
Comparing Johnson to Cam Newton would not be fair. They are very different QBs. Johnson is a more polished passer than Newton was before he came to Auburn. Newton's natural athleticism and running style is different from that of Johnson.
Throwing for 3,193 yards, 31 TDs and seven interceptions doesn't happen by accident. Johnson is not a guy who automatically looks to run every time he feels pressure in the pocket, though.
Johnson's arm strength allows him to make the tough throws and put the ball into tight spots. His height at 6'5" will play to his advantage as he will have no problem seeing over the line and making quick decisions.
When Johnson does feel the need to run, his vision and speed makes him very hard to tackle in the open field. He ran for 706 yards and seven TDs in his senior campaign at Carver High School in Montgomery.
Running a similar version of Malzahn's offense in high school will pay dividends for Johnson when he enters the QB battle later in the year.
Physical ability aside, Johnson has the intangibles that you look for in a QB on and off the field. His leadership ability did not go unnoticed when he rallied other recruits to choose Auburn.
Johnson will be a household name in the SEC by the end of his time on the Plains.
He is also Malzahn's first brick to be placed when building his offense for the future.
Running Back Peyton Barber
An oft-overlooked signee in the 2013 recruiting class is running back Peyton Barber. He was committed to Ole Miss for most of the recruiting cycle but ultimately chose Auburn after visiting the Plains on the last weekend before national signing day.
Malzahn believes that Barber would have gotten more attention if it wasn't for an injury that he suffered in his junior year of high school (via Auburn athletics):
Running back Peyton Barber is a guy that we started recruiting when we first got here. He was committed to another school, and he got hurt his junior year. This past year, he had a phenomenal year. I really feel like if he hadn’t gotten hurt his junior year, he’d be one of those top-ranked guys. He is a very strong, fast individual. We’re very excited about Peyton.
Barber was high school teammates with fellow Auburn signee, Carl Lawson at Milton High School in Alpharetta.
Barber brings a physical running game to the Tigers' offense. His running style will remind Tigers' fans of Ben Tate.
Barber has the ability to run low to the ground and behind his pads, making him hard to bring down on first contact. In Malzahn's physical, run-first offense, Barber is the type of back that can excel.
His 5'11", 215-pound frame gives him plenty of size to run between the tackles. His cutting ability and vision makes him a threat to score any time he gets in the open field.
In his senior season at Milton, he rushed for 1,713 yards on 225 carries. He scored 22 rushing TDs.
Any successful offense in the SEC will be able to run the ball and if Barber develops as hoped, he will be an important piece to the puzzle of putting Auburn back together.
Athlete Jason Smith
Jason Smith is the best athlete in the 2013 recruiting class. That can be said without reservation.
Smith wants to come in and get a shot at quarterback. He will get his shot, but I think his talents can best be used as a slot wide receiver. A wildcat QB package may also be installed for him at some point in his time at Auburn.
Smith has the potential to be a player for Auburn like Percy Harvin was for Florida. That is very high praise. But it's accurate.
Smith is a dynamic playmaker who is a scoring threat each time he touches the ball. He can run, throw, catch and be utilized on kickoffs and punt returns. We are still working to confirm if he can cut the grass, as well.
In all seriousness, Smith is a guy that Malzahn can tailor his offense around, specifically against defenses that are very aggressive. Smith is a perfect target to throw a WR screen to in order to neutralize a blitz-happy defense because of his playmaking ability. He's a guy that will do the rest of the work as long as the QB gets him the ball.
His 4.47 40-yard dash (according to Rivals) also makes him a good candidate for Malzahn's speed sweep that he loved to call when he was Auburn's offensive coordinator.
Defensive Tackle Montravius Adams
You've probably been hiding in a hole if you did not hear about 5-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams signing with Auburn on national signing day.
A lot has been made of it, and rightfully so. If Adams develops into the player that he is projected to be, he will be the type of DT that has the ability to affect an opponent's entire offensive game plan.
While defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are just as important in the 2013 recruiting class, their presence over the next few years will be felt mainly in the pass-rushing side of the game. In college football, specifically the SEC, defensive success begins with stopping the opponent's run game.
That is where Adams will be a big factor. Adams is already at 6'4", 310 pounds. For comparison's sake, Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley played the 2010 season at 6'5", 298 pounds.
Adams plays very aggressively, and rarely meets a ball-carrier with good intentions.
When Adams develops to his potential in the next two to three years, he will command double-teams from opponents. That will open up more opportunities for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to be more aggressive with his linebackers.
Adams is a guy that can Malzahn and Johnson can build the Auburn defense around as the Tigers try to get their swagger back.
Safety Khari Harding
Safety Khari Harding is another guy that can prove to be an underrated addition to the Tigers' 2013 recruiting class.
He flipped from Arkansas to Auburn on Jan. 20 after an official visit to the Plains.
Harding will likely be used in the "star" position by Johnson in his 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The "star" position is a hybrid safety position that can play the pass but will likely be used in more of a run-support role.
Harding does a great job of filling the alley when coming up on run support. He is not afraid to lower his shoulder and deliver a nasty blow to the ball-carrier either. Malzahn calls him a vicious hitter.
"Khari Harding, a safety from Oklahoma, is one of the bigger hitting safeties I’ve seen come out of high school. He’s a vicious guy. We need some depth at safety, and he’ll have a chance to come in and contribute early," Malzahn said in his signing day press conference.
In pass support, Harding is a "ball hawk" that is aggressive and is very intuitive when it comes to guessing where the QB is going to go with the ball.
It is very easy to build around a player like Harding who adds a lot of value to the defense in both run and pass support.