With 15 commitments so far, Auburn still has plenty of work left to do in the Class of 2017.
The Tigers have a number of top targets remaining that could qualify for the following categories, but for the time being, we’ll limit the “most important” recruits to the ones already verbally committed to the class. Coaches have to remain near-sighted and far-sighted when on the recruiting trail, filling immediate needs and preparing for eventual roster gaps.
This 2016 Auburn team is a young one. The notable seniors include: Montravius Adams, Tony Stevens, Jeremy Johnson, Josh Holsey, Rudy Ford, Marshall Taylor, T.J. Neal, Xavier Dampeer, Alex Kozan, Robert Leff, Marcus Davis, Maurice Swain Jr. and Devaroe Lawrence. It’s also safe to assume Carl Lawson will be a likely candidate for NFL early entry.
That leaves very few gaping holes in the 2017 lineup. Auburn will lose some depth on the defensive line, and the Tigers have no commits at the position right now. That will change, though Auburn is deep enough at the position to be patient. The offensive line will graduate three players who started this season. In the defensive backfield, the Tigers will lose a trio of playmakers.
There are a few potential 2017 additions that could become the most important short-term and long-term commits. But based on the current list, here are the recruits that will have the biggest immediate and extended impact for Auburn.
Short term: Most important recruit
Auburn’s most recent commitment has been a hot topic since he chose the Tigers last week. KJ Britt, the 4-star inside linebacker from Oxford (Ala.), has quickly transitioned from getting recruited to recruiting others to join the Auburn 2017 class.
By no means is Auburn desperate at linebacker. Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams all bring a wealth of youth (yet experience) to the future of Auburn’s linebackers group. But the Tigers will lose some depth when Neal and Greg Hall Jr. — not major contributors — finish up their senior seasons.
In a perfect world, Auburn will have developed Montavious Atkinson, Tre’ Threat, Richard McBryde and others enough to avoid using an unready freshman linebacker.
But that’s what might make Britt the most important recruit immediately: He’s an early enrollee.
Not just that. He isn’t playing in any national All-American game, so Britt plans to get on campus as early as mid- to late-December, which would allow him to participate in bowl practices. Britt will have a major head start on many members of the 2017 class, and as we’ve seen with Marlon Davidson this season, getting the six-month advantage helps come fall.
Also for short-term gains, Britt’s commitment has created a momentum that few other additions would have done. The 4-star linebacker is a glue guy that other commits on visits and at camps are drawn to. The Tigers hope that helps as they try to close out the 2017 recruiting cycle in style.
Long term: Most important recruit
Losing three members of the offensive line — Kozan, Leff and Dampeer (not starting anymore) — the offensive line might seem like the most immediate place of need for the Tigers. To some extent, it is. There are three commits in the class already and the likely addition of one or two more. Depending on who those future commits are, they could work their way into the short-term importance conversation (see: JUCO guard Jordan Agasiva).
Ashley, the only 5-star in the class, might have enough upside to earn a starting nod right away at offensive tackle, though that would come somewhat as a surprise with guys like Prince Tega Wanogho still young and available. But the left tackle position is the cornerstone of the Gus Malzahn-Rhett Lashlee offense, and Ashley appears to be the most likely candidate to be the future of the position.
Darius James, a junior, took over the role this season after junior Austin Golson returned to his original position at center. James has played well since earning the left tackle spot and is the favorite to hold onto the position until he leaves just over a year from now. After that, someone has to assume the throne, and it seems like Ashley is the best choice.
The 5-star offensive tackle still has some potential visits to take, but it will be critical for Auburn to secure Ashley. As long as Malzahn is in charge, the Tigers will rely on the running game. The left tackle is essential to that operation, making Ashley a must-keep.