AUBURN — Gus Malzahn (or the person who runs the Auburn head coach’s Twitter account) doesn’t tweet much. He (or they) certainly never called his shot the way he did early on National Signing Day.
“It’s going to be a great day!” the @CoachGusMalzahn account tweeted Wednesday morning, along with a GIF of the seventh-year coach pumping his fist and yelling a trademark “Boom.”
It certainly had the chance to be. Auburn entered the day with 16 players already signed in a 2019 recruiting class that, at the time, ranked 12th nationally, two commits and a chance to land six more undecided targets closely considering the Tigers.
By the time Malzahn stepped to the lectern inside Auburn’s athletics complex Wednesday afternoon, his team had landed four of those undecided players — four-star defensive end Charles Moore and running back Mark-Antony Richards, and three-star offensive lineman Kamaar Bell and linebacker Octavius Brothers — and held onto one of those commits — three-star linebacker Kameron Brown.
Two of those players — Moore and Richards — are top-100 prospects nationally, giving the Tigers five total.
“We're very excited about that group,” Malzahn said. “They'll be great players here at Auburn.”
Add those five to the 16 who had already signed — nine of whom enrolled early — and Auburn’s 21-member 2019 class ranks 11th nationally and sixth in the SEC, according to the 247Sports composite. The average player grade of 91.16 is the sixth-highest nationally and highest of Malzahn’s tenure.
So it was a good day for the Tigers. In December, Malzahn pointed to “another running back, another big-time receiver, with a few more linemen and a few more linebackers,” as the team’s top remaining needs going into National Signing Day. It hit on three of those with Richards, Bell, Brothers and Brown.
Richards is “the most versatile running back in the country,” Malzahn said. Bell was a high priority on the offensive line who could play guard or center. Brothers is a linebacker who “plays with an edge." Brown — the younger brother of senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown — reminds the head coach of Deshaun Davis because he’s “a guy who wasn't highly recruited, but he has all the physicality, the want-to, all the intangibles.”
The thing that probably keeps the day from being considered “great,” however, was the one need it didn’t satisfy. Five-star Hoover product George Pickens would have fit the “big-time receiver” bill as the No. 24-ranked player in the country, but he flipped his pledge to rival Georgia during a ceremony late Wednesday morning.
If he had stuck with the Tigers, their class would have jumped from 11th all the way up to sixth, according to the 247Sports class calculator.
“I just felt like it was the right place for me. Plus, coaching-wise, knowing that Kirby Smart is always going to be up for a national championship,” Pickens told reporters in Hoover after making his decision. “Georgia has always been the No. 2 school behind Auburn. It wasn’t an easy decision. Probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
Pickens’ decision caused a stir among Auburn players on Twitter, most notably from rising sophomore Coynis Miller Jr., who wrote “knew this was coming…better stop playing and drop that check, everybody else doing it” in a tweet that was later deleted.
Malzahn did a better job of shaking off the loss of the first player to commit to Auburn’s 2019 class way back in July of 2017. The fact that the Tigers return Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, Sal Cannella, Eli Stove, Will Hastings, Shedrick Jackson and Matthew Hill at the position and had already signed Jashawn Sheffield and Ja’Varrius Johnson probably helps.
“We’ve got a lot of big-time receivers that are young,” Malzahn said. “That’s not going to bother us.”
And Auburn brought in a strong class even without Pickens. Five-star quarterback Bo Nix will compete for the starting job as soon as this spring, and five-star linebacker Owen Pappoe will do the same for a defense that’s replacing three senior starters at his position in Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson.
The addition of Richards to go along with four-star early signee D.J. Williams gives the Tigers the two running backs they wanted. Malzahn believes Bell and December offensive line signees Keiondre Jones and Justin Osborne are potential “impact players” at a position that will badly need them after six seniors graduate next season.
Moore will join Jaren Handy, Colby Wooden and Derick Hall in making a standout defensive line even stronger, and defensive backs Zion Puckett, Cam’Ron Kelly, Jaylin Simpson and Nehemiah Pritchett give the secondary even more depth.
“You combine that with the eight players, the juniors that thought about going out early that chose to come back,” Malzahn said, “I think there's a lot of excitement and a lot of reason to be excited.”
Still it’s not hard to think about what could have been had Pickens not decided to go elsewhere.