AUBURN — When the NCAA passed a rule allowing college programs to hire a 10th on-field assistant coach starting with the 2018 season, Gus Malzahn brought in Marcus Woodson to be a second defensive backs coach on his Auburn staff.
It wasn’t a typical Malzahn hire. Woodson had never coached with Malzahn before, like J.B. Grimes or Herb Hand. He never played for the Tigers like Rodney Garner, Kodi Burns, Travis Williams and Cadillac Williams. He isn’t a veteran of the business with long resume like Kevin Steele or Greg Brown.
What Woodson did have, though — along with eight years of experience at the Division I level — was deep ties to the state of Mississippi. He came to Auburn after two seasons on Mike Norvell’s staff at Memphis, but he is from Moss Point, Mississippi, played college ball at Ole Miss, and started his coaching career at Millsaps College in Jackson.
Auburn announced the hire of Woodson on Jan. 3, 2018. A little more than a year later, it has already paid dividends. Of the Tigers’ 21 signees in the Class of 2019, three are from Mississippi — four-star defensive linemen Derick Hall (Gulfport), Jaren Handy (Hattiesburg) and Charles Moore (Louisville).
"Marcus Woodson has done a super job with his connections in that state,” Malzahn said on National Signing Day. “I think you'll see that continue to happen.”
That’s not something Auburn has traditionally done in the past, despite the shared border. Entering the 2018 season, the Tigers had only had 42 lettermen from Mississippi, compared to 1,285 from Alabama, 395 from Georgia and 218 from Florida.
Those three states are where Malzahn built his first six recruiting classes as Auburn’s head coach. Of the 149 players the Tigers signed over six cycles from 2013-18, 131, or 87.9 percent, were from either Alabama, Georgia or Florida.
The bulk of Auburn’s 21-member 2019 class, which ranks sixth nationally in terms of average player rating, also came from those three states, but not by as high a percentage — the Tigers signed nine players from Georgia, three each from Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, and one each from South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Making a push west this year was a priority for Auburn. It’s one of the reasons Malzahn hired Woodson to fill that 10th spot on staff. Mississippi produced no more than 11 blue-chip recruits (players with four and five stars) in any year between 2002-2018, and most years it was a single-digit number. The Class of 2019 had 16 such players.
Auburn signed only 16 players out of Mississippi high schools over 20 years from 1999-2018 — Allen Tillman (1999); Jason Campbell (2000); Michael Gibson (2002); Tim Duckworth and Quentin Groves (2003); Steve Gandy and Michael McLaughlin (2004); Hendrick Leverette (2006); Chaz Ramsey and Chris Zinn (2007); Andre Wadley and Drew Cole (2008); Daren Bates (2009); Shon Coleman (2010); Jermaine Whitehead (2011); Deon Mix (2013); and Xavier Dampeer (2014).
Three of those players came from Olive Branch (Miss.) High School but listed Memphis, Tennessee, as their hometown. Only 13 earned varsity letters at Auburn.
In 2019, the Tigers used Woodson’s connections and Garner’s closing ability to land three players out of Mississippi high schools, which is more than any other out-of-state university and more than Auburn signed in a single class at any point over the previous 20 years.
Woodson, who was also credited as being the secondary contact on four-star defensive backs Zion Puckett, Cam’Ron Kelly and Jaylin Simpson, finished as the ninth-ranked recruiter nationally, per 247Sports.
“I grew up in Mississippi. Playing college ball in the state, just naturally allows me to have connections throughout the state with the guys I've played with who are now coaching,” Woodson said before the 2018 season. “So it's not many schools in the state that I can walk into that I don't have a relationship with someone. It may be a teacher. It may be a coach. It may be a janitor. But the relationships are there in order to be able to have a chance.
“Coach Malzahn and staff wanted a chance to tap into Mississippi with the talent that's in this 2019 class, 2020 and 2021 and moving forward. It's a talent-rich state. We want to do a good job of getting the brand in the state, so we can develop a pipeline and get the guys to Auburn that we want."
Hall, an edge rusher, and Handy and Moore, both strongside defensive ends, have the potential to be significant pieces on the defensive line. Each ranked top-10 in the state and at their position nationally, and the Tigers will likely have to replace all three of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson (who are both seniors) and Nick Coe (a redshirt junior) in 2020.
Auburn doesn’t plan for its 2019 foray into Mississippi to be an anomaly. Woodson’s home state has seven blue-chip prospects in the Class of 2020 right now, and the Tigers have offers out to four of them.
The westward expansion may not be limited to the Magnolia State, either — first-year offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who Malzahn also hired away from Memphis, originally is from Arizona and has seven offers out to 2020 prospects from that state.
“Usually what happens, you get a couple of guys from a certain state and they have success and it’s easier to recruit the next time,” Malzahn said. “There’s some great players in the state of Mississippi. I think you’ll see that continued, as far as players coming from the state of Mississippi to play for Auburn.”