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February 5, 2013

Frenzied finish

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AUBURN -- Don't call it a comeback.

The Tigers were a program in obvious upheaval less than two months ago. The head coach was gone, the next step was uncharted, the prized collection of committed players had become a prime target for stabilized programs seeking talent.

The tables have turned.

Gus Malzahn and Auburn's new coaching staff, in six weeks, have given the program a chance to finish with a top-10 signing class. Almost all hints of recruiting damage have been mitigated and the Tigers now are in position to sway some of the nation's most high-profile prospects away from their assumed destinations.

The Tigers are back in the fray.

Understanding the renaissance doesn't require a dip into the history books. It began in late December when Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee worked diligently to assure four-star quarterback Jeremy Johnson that Auburn was his best choice.

He agreed. He then trekked to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, where he told any prospect who'd listen that the Tigers were on the fast track back to national relevance. He called fellow recruits. He messaged them.

Johnson embraced some heavy lifting.

The pieces slowly fell into place. First came word that three junior college players had signed scholarship papers. Then an Oklahoma safety with ties to Arkansas, Khari Harding, committed to Auburn. A pair of highly touted receivers from Orlando -- Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker -- followed along a few weeks later.

Tailback Peyton Barber flipped from Ole Miss last weekend. Another Ole Miss commitment, defensive end Elijah Daniel from suburban Indianapolis, may follow suit. Another tailback, Johnathan Ford, de-committed from Vanderbilt after a visit to the Plains and on Wednesday will choose between Auburn and Tennessee.

Yet the biggest news arrived quietly.

Defensive end Carl Lawson, ranked by Rivals as its No. 4 overall player, re-affirmed his commitment to Auburn on Sunday afternoon. No press conference. No television. Just a simple tweet.

That provided tangible assurance from other prospects that Malzahn wasn't simply a paper tiger. One of the nation's most coveted and respected prospect approached Auburn with a critical eye and walked away convinced that the program was on its way back.

So what happens now?

Several big names remain. The biggest? Defensive tackle Montravius Adams, who is considering offers from Auburn, Alabama and Georgia. Defensive end Tashawn Bower remains committed to Auburn yet is considering a flip to Florida. Defensive back Mackensie Alexander is down to Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Clemson.

Momentum is on the Tigers' side.

Wednesday could consummate the best possible opening stage to Malzahn's plan to revitalize Auburn. Yet he'll never acknowledge it as such.

He touted the program's greatness during his interview in Nashville. He believes Auburn sells itself, that this staff simply is making sure recruits can see the greatness clearly.

This could be epic.

Even if it's not, this staff has erased the negativity. The program is now a destination -- and that will boost Auburn's allure going forward. That's a home run.



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