Photo by Todd J. Van Emst
The Auburn Tigers had a ready selling point for prospective recruits: The chance to come in and play immediately for the defending national champions.
There's plenty of job openings. With that in mind, the Tigers loaded up on offensive and defensive linemen on Wednesday aiming to fill pressing needs.
One, Maryland offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (Kwan'-jo), has put the Tigers on hold. He announced he planned to attend Auburn, but still hadn't signed his letter of intent Wednesday afternoon.
Kouandjio is rated one of the nation's top 5 overall prospects by Rivals.com, Scout.com and ESPN. His other finalists were Alabama, where his brother Arie plays, and New Mexico.
Asked about his status, coach Gene Chizik said: "I'm only going to talk about the ones that we've got paperwork in."
That left plenty to talk about.
Auburn finished with a flourish that helped the signing class move up the rankings. Auburn's group was tentatively rated No. 1 by Scout and No. 3 by both Rivals and ESPN.com.
"There's a good amount of guys on this signing list that we're going to have to count on to come in and play," coach Gene Chizik said.
The Tigers' 2011 class includes Columbus, Ga., defensive tackle Gabe Wright and Valley High School safety Erique Florence. The class also features offensive linemen Christian Westerman -- a former Texas pledge -- and Reese Dismukes, along with quarterback Kiehl Frazier and linebacker Kris Frost.
The Tigers must replace four seniors on the offensive line, and Chizik said he expects the new players to contend for playing time early.
"We felt we had to do a really good job of evaluating not just whether they're good high school players, but what is the probability that they can come in and play young?" he said. "That was the biggest criteria. We were trying to not necessarily bring a guy in that we felt three years from now could help us. We feel like every one of these guys have the ability, depending on how fast they learn, to come in here and help us immediately."
The Tigers did lose running back commitment Brent Calloway to the Crimson Tide Wednesday, leaving Tre Mason as the lone signee at that position. Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb are the only other scholarship tailbacks on the roster.
Cornerback Jermaine Whitehead was another signing day pickup for the Tigers.
Auburn must replace 17 starters, including Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Only one starter returns on both the offensive and defensive lines, where the Tigers landed at least four signees apiece.
The class was especially strong on the offensive line if Kouandjio signs, with three blockers rated No. 1 at their position by at least one recruiting service. Westerman is rated the No. 1 guard by Scout.com as well as the No. 2 tackle behind Kouandjio and sixth-best prospect overall by ESPN.com. Dismukes, who is already enrolled, is rated as the top center by ESPN.com and 247Sports.
Plus, Gregory Robinson is the No. 2 guard according to Rivals.com.
"I think we're going to leave a mark in Auburn history," Kouandjio said of the linemen in announcing his decision.
On the defensive line, Wright hardly lacks for confidence. He announced his choice over Tennessee and Alabama while sporting an Auburn cap with "Nick Who?" in reference to Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner and a possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick.
Fairley clearly wasn't offended. He tweeted, "I LIKE IT GABE! Nick Who? That's creative!"
ESPN.com rated Wright as the third-best defensive tackle and No. 26 player overall.
"Gabe Wright's a guy that we have targeted really since we got here," Chizik said. "He is probably one of the first priorities that we had when he was a young player. That was a huge part of our puzzle defensively. We feel like he was the best defensive tackle in the nation, and he was a major target for us."
Florence was the Tigers' top in-state signee with Calloway's defection. He is rated one of the nation's five best safeties by recruiting services and Chizik called him "just one heck of a football player."
"It's a family thing there," Florence said in announcing his decision.
Auburn also signed quarterback Kiehl Frazier out of Springdale, Ark. He was USA Today's National offensive player of the year and rated the No. 2 passer by ESPN.com. Frazier also might have a head start since he played in a similar offense at the school where Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was head coach.
Frost, who Auburn lists as an athlete, was the No. 2 outside linebacker and No. 20 player overall.
Athlete Quan Bray is ESPN.com's No. 5 athlete and 40th-best prospect. Chizik called him "one of the most exciting players in the state of Georgia." He said Bray can play wildcat quarterback, tailback or wide receiver.
"He can do it all," Chizik said. "He in our offense can be a guy that you really have to find out where he is to know what we're doing with him. He's exciting. He's electric with his hands on the football."