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February 5, 2014
AUBURN The Tigers built the most memorable season of their storied history in 2013, but its effect on recruiting wasn't exactly overwhelming.
That wasn't needed.
Auburn signed 24 players to its Class of 2014 on Wednesday, consummating relationships that had been building for years in some cases. The news was good: Another top-10 class that closely matched the program's most pressing needs. A trio of five-star players were signed -- a wideout, a tailback and a linebacker -- yet all three of them committed before the Tigers became a national sensation.
Coach Gus Malzahn likes that.
"A lot of these guys committed when we came off winning three games (in 2012) and it was very tough," he said. "They really believed in what we were doing. That's also tough to do. They hung in there with us. Obviously we won and all that, but there's a great appreciation for those guys who came on board before we started winning."
Talk of Auburn's latest class starts with the Big Three.
Wideout D'haquille Williams enrolled in January, but did sign a national letter of intent on Wednesday. He's a game-breaking element whom Rivals assessed as the nation's top prospect in all of junior college. He's expected to become a focal point of the Tigers' passing attack beginning this season.
Tailback Racean Thomas also has the look of a game-changing player. Rivals.com judged him as the nation's second-best tailback after a senior season at Oxford High that included 2,211 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns.
Keep in mind that he was slowed throughout September with ankle and shoulder injuries.
"He was the top running back on our guys' board, our offensive staff identified him early, they recruited him extremely hard," Malzahn said. "He was very loyal to us, could have (gone) anywhere and chose to not. He stayed with us. We really feel like he's got the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact."
Auburn's other five-star prospect is linebacker Tre Williams, who committed last spring and never wavered. His allegiance was particularly noteworthy in that Williams played at St. Paul's Episcopal.
Mobile has been an Alabama stronghold for years.
Yet assistant coach Dameyune Craig, who signed with Auburn out of Mobile's Blount High in 1993, was able to persuade Williams that the Tigers were the best choice. Craig also was lead recruiter for another pair of Mobile natives: Justin Thornton and Deshaun Davis.
"We really felt like (Williams) was the top linebacker in the class, a guy that has been with us, committed to us, had opportunities to go anywhere he wanted," Malzahn said. "He chose to stay loyal. He was really a big key to this signing class and just a great person. He's got great potential and he'll make an immediate impact."
Though most of the Tigers' class was committed well ahead of National Signing Day, there were some surprises.
Offensive lineman Braden Smith of suburban Kansas City picked Auburn over TCU and Texas A&M in what many observers considered an upset. Smith's sister throws for the Horned Frogs' track and field team, which was supposed to provide an advantage nobody else could match.
Yet Smith, who craves the country life and played in a Wing-T offense, saw Auburn as the best fit. As a result, the Tigers added a four-star standout who has tackle size but can handle the difficult job requirements of playing guard in Malzahn's offense.
"He's stronger than your average freshman coming in," the head coach said. "He's very serious. The way y'all see him on TV, that's the way he is. He doesn't say a whole lot. He's football. He's working out. He's our type of guy."
Auburn also snagged one of the final uncommitted players to reveal a decision. Defensive end Andrew Williams of suburban Atlanta made his intentions known during the 1 o'clock hour, providing a strong finish to the Tigers' day.
"We've been recruiting him a long time," Malzahn said. "He's a very big, athletic guy that can run, that can rush the passer. Very physical. (Rodney Garner) did a great job with him and he's also a guy that we feel like can give us some depth early on." Auburn's class was judged the nation's ninth-best by Rivals.com.