Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff were extremely busy over the last two weeks leading up to Wednesday’s early National Signing Day. Recruiting was a concern once Auburn fired Bryan Harsin as head coach after 19 games and inserted Cadillac Willams as interim head coach.
The Tigers were ranked in the low 50’s nationally on most recruiting sites and towards the bottom of the Southeastern Conference before Freeze took the job shortly after the Iron Bowl loss against Alabama.
Building a coaching staff, adjusting to a new town, keeping players on board from the current team, and finding impactful athletes was a tall order. Freeze, with help from Williams, secondary coach Zac Etheridge, departed linebacker coach Christian Robinson and others, turned the dreadful class into one that most sites ranked in the top 20’s with more to come.
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“We came into this considerably behind what I think Auburn should be in recruiting. And I have to say, first and foremost, Zac (Etheridge) and Cadillac (Williams) and even CRob and probably others, too, that I’m not totally aware of,” Freeze told reporters. “But those guys never gave up and trying to hold onto some relationships that had been formed throughout the previous years along with the people in the building, and they deserve a ton of credit for hanging us in the fight until we could get what these families appear to have some stability and some direction and vision for our program.”
Auburn will lose several offensive and defensive line starters because of either exhausted eligibility or entry into the 2023 National Football League draft. Freeze addressed this by signing six offensive linemen and six defensive linemen out of a class of 19 players.
“We tried to focus on big men. I think this is a big man league,” Freeze said. “If you don’t have guys on both sides up front, it’s very difficult for these athletic receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks. Those DBs get a lot better if you’ve got an EDGE rusher that can shorten the time a quarterback has.”
Development of offensive and defensive lines has been a concern at Auburn going back to the end of Guz Malzhan’s tenure. Harsin’s 19-game stint didn’t see much improvement. Freeze hopes to get Auburn back to dominating in the trenches.
“Our emphasis will always be on making sure those rooms are correct,” Freeze said. “We’re not there yet. I hope recruits are listening. We’re still going to be recruiting them tonight for right now. There’s still a few in the portal that we’re heavily on. Hopefully, we can land a few of those guys.”
Five of the offensive lineman signed by Freeze are high school seniors. It’s rare for a player to come out of high school ready for the rigors of playing in the SEC on the offensive line. Izavion Miller is the only player with college experience. Miller is 6’6 320 and played two years of junior college football. He’s adept at pass and run blocking.
“You’re going to love this kid. He brings joy around him,” Freeze said. “Jake and Joe did an incredible job of winning that battle and recruiting him against other SEC programs. He’s a guy that we need to play right away. We’re excited to have him too.”
Elijah McCalister played at Vanderbilt before entering the portal and coming to the Plains. His arrival is essential for the defensive line.
“A two-time team captain in this conference at another school. Excited to have him,” Freeze said. “I think he’s going to bring some maturity to that side of the ball, some leadership for these young guys who I think are incredibly talented.”
Freeze is building a foundation in the trenches for future depth. Taking a class from being one of the worst in school history to a respectable finish in less than a month is a rare feat. However, Alabama had yet another top class, and Georgia is right behind them.
Last season, Auburn watched its two chief rivals play in the National Championship Game while licking the wounds from a loss against Houston in the Birmingham Bowl. This season, Georgia is back in the playoffs while Bama is coming off what they consider as a down year with a Sugar Bowl appearance.
“It’s really, really hard not to look at; gosh, we moved up 40-something spots and we still don’t feel like you closed the gap on those big dudes that we’ve gotta go beat,” Freeze said. “In a year’s time, I hope we’re right up there with them. But there’s no question that we improved our current state, and now we’ve gotta make the most of it on the field. I think it was a solid day for us.”
Nubyjas Wilborn covers Auburn for Alabama Media Group.