MADISON, Ala. — Everyone thinks they have Monty Rice and LaBryan Ray figured out.
Rice, a linebacker, and Ray, a defensive end, star for the James Clemens High School defense and both are hot commodities in the SEC’s recruiting landscape for 2017. For those who like Crystal Ball predictions, the 247Sports expert picks feature has the James Clemens duo pinned to SEC venues outside of Auburn, Ala.
Ray, the No. 1 player in the state of Alabama, has 22 predictions. All 22 to Alabama. That’s pretty convincing. Similarly, 86 percent of Monty Rice’s selections point to Georgia in favor of Auburn.
Those predictions are likely indicative of the direction each are leaning at the time, but both expect to keep their decisions waiting until at least January. Their minds aren’t near an immediate choice — and Auburn remains in play for both.
“I just want to make sure I visit everyone to make sure that I’m making the best decision for me and my family,” Ray said. “It’s something I’ll take my time with. I’m not in no rush. I’m just trying to enjoy.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m close to making a decision,” Rice said.
But they are gradually getting there.
Ray laid out a top 6 before the season. It included Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi State. Ray is beginning to get a better feel for things and would like to drop it down to a final three, if possible, to make it easier to narrow in on his final decision.
Auburn didn’t crack Ray’s top 12, but the Tigers did make his top 6. Ray visited for the Auburn-Clemson game and used the phrase, “Oh my God” when describing the Tigers defense this season. I’d say that’s a strong review.
But a big part of cutting his list will be dependent on those official visits. Ray plans to take all five.
“I want, especially after the college football season, I’d maybe want to get it down to a good three. Cut it in half down to three,” Ray said. “That’s what I’d love to do. But then, I’m sitting there thinking that I’m going to take all of my five officials. And I’m going to take them all toward the end.”
Rice still views his final decision as a long way off, but he’s starting to gain more clarity.
Georgia always has been considered the favorite for Rice. He attended the Georgia-Tennessee wild finish, and he acted out the last 20 seconds Thursday. Interestingly, Rice also was on hand for the Auburn-LSU matchup. He’s seen some wacky endings this season on his unofficial visits.
But the way he recapped the Georgia game, and the deflation in the stadium, shows his love for the Bulldogs. But Rice said he’s not singling out anyone at this top. Instead, he’s providing a top list of last-stretch contenders: Georgia, Auburn, Florida State and Ole Miss.
“I wouldn’t say I have my mind made up,” Rice said. “But I have a few schools in mind.”
LSU was a factor in the equation, but Rice has hesitated with the Tigers since Les Miles firing, calling it a situation he’d rather not “go into.” So it appears an SEC trio and Florida State have the best chances at this time to land Rice, though Georgia is the presumed frontrunner.
How the Gus Malzahn, Tim Horton visit could help
As I reported Thursday evening, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and running backs coach Tim Horton will swing by James Clemens on Friday to check out the school’s defensive tandem.
Rice and his head coach Wade Waldrop expect Malzahn around 3:30 p.m ET on his two-day north Alabama recruiting trip. Horton will stick around for the 7 p.m. game between James Clemens and Buckhorn, the home of Auburn linebacker target Will Ignont.
Horton will get to see a linebacker competition, of sorts, between Rice and Ignont and perhaps make some last stabs at Ray to earn an official visit for Auburn. With only a few linebacker spots left on the board, it will give the Auburn staff a chance to evaluate two of the remaining options.
“It’s some good one-stop shopping there,” Waldrop said.
As mentioned Thursday, Rice sees the visit as a nice gesture for a school still in the mix, though it’s not necessarily a make-or-break thing. Still, he’s grateful for the staff’s awareness.
The relationship he has with Horton and Malzahn is strong.
“They’re real honest guys. Straight up. Good coaches. Auburn is a couple turnovers away from being undefeated,” Rice said. “I like those coaches. They’re real good people.”
Ray is being courted by everyone in the nation, so he’s no stranger to coach visits. But having multiple coaches show face will only assist in scoring an official visit for Ray.
And, in his case, those official visits seem to be one of the most important remaining elements.
“I wouldn’t mind a coaching staff, getting a feel for them, seeing what type of people they are,” Ray said. “Just the feel of that university that I know I want to attend to make sure it feels like the right place to be.”
About those official visits…
Ray wants to reduce his list to three. That might cause concern for Auburn considering Ray “definitely” knows the schools that will get three of his official visits and Auburn isn’t one of them.
Those three are Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. Ray thinks Ole Miss has a good chance to land one, too. The fifth one, for now, is up for grabs, but it is Ray’s intention to take it.
Out of his top 6, that would leave a battle between Auburn and Mississippi State, but Ray could choose to reach outside that listed group. All of those official visits will come in December and January.
It is this potential reaction to official visits that makes me think earning an official visit is critical in landing Ray: “If I definitely know, if I go on one of my officials, and I know where I want to be, I’ll cut it short. But I’m planning on taking on all my five,” Ray said.
Even if Auburn doesn’t get a visit, Ray plans on making another Auburn game this season. He wants to see the Tigers in-person again to assess their progress from his Week 1 trip.
Rice only has one official visit scheduled. That will be to Florida State for the Clemson game Oct. 29. He originally planned on taking one to Arkansas last week, but his mom wanted to go and couldn’t last minute, so he went to watch the Auburn-Mississippi State in Starkville instead (on an unofficial visit).
“Auburn dominated,” he said.
Rice said he’ll be in Athens for the Auburn-Georgia game, but he didn’t confirm whether he’d take an official visit. It’s possible, but still undecided.
What their coach is saying
It’s always nice to get a take from the head coach who has watched the players progress through their high school career. You can tell how much he’s going to miss these two studs on his James Clemens defense.
“We’re glad we’ve got a few more weeks with them,” Waldrop said
It’s easy to look at Ray and tell he’s a physical specimen. But that’s not what Waldrop likes to discuss when he talks about Ray. There are so many other redeeming qualities for the No. 1-ranked player in the state of Alabama.
“He’s a better kid than he is a player, too. That’s what’s awesome. He’s top 1 percent of kids I’ve ever coached, just as a person,” Waldrop said. “He’s an awesome dude, very humble. Teachers love him. Other kids like him. I love him … I could talk about him all day.”
Rice fits an interesting need in this class. Auburn has great outside linebackers in Chandler Wooten and Tadarian Moultry. Now the Tigers are looking for inside run stoppers. Oxford’s KJ Britt could be one of those options. Rice might be another.
Based on his coach’s assessment, he fills that role.
“He’s physical. Downhill. Very athletic. Very, very athletic. Tough-minded,” Waldrop said. “He’s a linebacker, just mentally in everything that he does. He comes to school and does really well so that he can play football. He loves competing.”
Waldrop admits to being hands-off with the duo’s recruitment, but he offers advice whenever asked. One thing — something Auburn fans will like to hear — stood out to him when Rice’s recruitment really began to take off. Granted, things have changed since then, but it’s still intriguing.
“When the whole recruiting process started, he wanted to start from the bottom up. He wanted to be SEC. He wanted to be SEC West. He wanted the opportunity to play in an Iron Bowl,” Waldrop said. “That was something that stood out to me as some goals that he wanted.”
Georgia seems to be in the best shape, but Auburn is the only team still in contention that would be able to fulfill all three of those qualifications.
Auburn misses out on TE commitment
Auburn’s search for the future at tight end continues.
One of the Tigers top options on the board — Kurt Rafdal out of Carmel (Ind.) — picked the in-state Hoosiers in favor of Auburn on Thursday night.
I am officially committed to Indiana University! pic.twitter.com/vmtXZvlNlP
— Kurt Rafdal (@kurt_rafdal) October 14, 2016
It’s not much of a surprise that Indiana landed Rafdal. But it continues the confusing narrative at the tight end position. Auburn put a lot of eggs in the Landon Rice basket, and that backfired when he left school and with the Title IX case. The Tigers are fighting to rebuild with Jalen Harris and would like to find the future at the position.
Rafdal was a top option. So is Oregon commit Tre’ McKitty from IMG Academy (Fla.). Auburn had coaches in attendance for McKitty’s game Friday night. The Tigers are holding out for a potential flip.
Adam Boselli, from Jacksonville (Fla.), hasn’t picked up an offer yet, but he thinks coaches will come see him play soon. That’s another potential outlet at tight end.