Thursday October 16th, 2008

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has had to answer plenty of tough questions in the past two weeks, but the queries he got from the fourth estate were softballs compared to the ones Ray Cotton Jr. and his father will soon ask.

Friday, Auburn coaches are scheduled to fly to Fort Meade, Md., to watch the quarterback, who committed to the Tigers on April 1 with hopes of someday commanding first-year coordinator Tony Franklin's spread offense. Franklin now is unemployed after a six-game tenure, and the Cottons want answers before deciding whether to honor the commitment. NCAA rules forbid coaches from speaking to the younger Cotton at his game, but at some point in the next few days, father and son will get Tuberville on the line and fire away.

"Ray [Jr.] has got about four or five questions," Ray Sr. said this week. "I've got about 15."

Tuberville, who only has to worry about a mass exodus of offensive players, has it easy compared to Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney. For the next month or so, recruits in every facet of the game will ask Swinney questions he can't possibly answer. Before Monday, Swinney was Clemson's receivers coach and ace recruiter. Now, he'll face these whoppers from every recruit: Why did Tommy Bowden get forced out? Which assistants are staying? Why are you recruiting me if you might not even be at Clemson in two months?

Midseason firings force coaches to walk a high wire when it comes to recruiting. In most cases, they don't have satisfactory answers, but they must keep players interested in their school, even as rival recruiters swoop in. Trouble is, Tuberville's firing of Franklin and the under-duress resignation of Bowden at Clemson caused the same problem: recruits who committed because of a certain coach or scheme feel betrayed, and they wonder how expendable they might be if a coach can be jettisoned in midseason. And though the Clemson situation is ultimately more perilous in terms of the long-term health of the program, Tuberville and Swinney each face a challenge.

When news broke last week that Tuberville had fired Franklin, the elder Cotton swiped his son's cell phone. Without the phone, Ray Jr. missed the barrage of text messages and worried calls from fellow Auburn recruits. The elder Cotton didn't want his son to panic and do or say something he might regret later.

Most of the recruits who committed to Auburn to run Franklin's spread also avoided knee-jerk decisions, choosing instead to wait for Tuberville to explain his future plans for the offense. In the meantime, some will look elsewhere. Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who plays in a version of Franklin's offense at Marietta (Ga.) Lassiter High, told this week that he plans to consider Texas Tech, Miami, Florida State, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The recruit reaction to Franklin's firing wasn't nearly as harsh as the reaction to the news at Clemson. Aldine, Texas, safety Craig Loston, No. 14 overall in the SI/ rankings, committed to Clemson in April but had taken other visits. Upon learning Bowden was gone Monday, Loston immediately dropped the Tigers. Later Monday, Rock Hill, S.C., safety Devonte Holloman decommitted. He'll visit rival South Carolina this weekend, though Clemson remains on his list.

Bradenton (Fla.), tailback Ben Axon took a fairly realistic view of the move. "I wasn't shocked," he said. "As a matter of fact, I was surprised they didn't fire [Bowden] earlier." Axon said he loves the school and the program, but he wants to know who will lead the program. "Everything's 50/50," he said. Axon plans to take official visits to Clemson, West Virginia and South Carolina.

Swinney, the former Alabama receiver revered in recruiting circles for plucking current Tigers star C.J. Spiller out of Lake Butler, Fla., must manage the fallout. There's only one problem. He doesn't know if he's recruiting players he'll coach. Still, he told the rest of Clemson's coaches to contact recruits immediately and give them whatever information they could.

"One of the things I encouraged the coaches to do was get on the phone with these guys," Swinney said Monday night during his introductory press conference. "Don't let them go and not let them hear from us for a week. Get on the phone and let them know we're going to do what we can to get this thing done. I think people appreciate that. What we'll do immediately is talk to our committed guys and talk to the targets we're recruiting actively. Let them know, hey, don't give up on Clemson."

Swinney can help his own cause -- with recruits and with Clemson powers-that-be who may consider retaining him -- by winning consistently during the second half of the season. Still, that may not be enough. If Tigers officials were to hire, say, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Swinney might have a place as the Tigers' offensive coordinator. If they hire someone with an offensive background, such as former Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin, Swinney probably wouldn't remain at Clemson. But who knows?

If Swinney can win and salvage the recruiting class, he might have a chance at removing the interim tag. Still, Swinney knows that's a long shot. "I may be here seven more weeks, and they may be packing me up and moving me out of here, too," he said. "But I have zero regrets."

Recruits don't want to have any regrets either, so they'll ask coaches at Clemson and Auburn as many questions as they feel necessary in the coming weeks. The pressure will be on the coaches to provide the correct answers. Tuberville will get his chance this weekend with Ray Cotton Jr. "If Ray can trust the coaches, he'll still be a solid Auburn guy," Ray Sr. said. "He committed to Auburn the school and not necessarily to Coach Franklin."

It doesn't always take a firing to prompt a player to look elsewhere. Hampton (Va.) quarterback Tahj Boyd dropped his commitment to West Virginia this week after watching the Mountaineers struggle to put up points this season. The decision has left Boyd, an Elite 11 invitee, with a long list of schools that includes Boston College, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Virginia and others.

Typically, when a high profile quarterback decommits, it sets off a domino effect. That doesn't appear to be the case at West Virginia. Logan Heastie, the Chesapeake, Va., receiver who committed to West Virginia on the same day as Boyd, told this week that he still intends to go to Morgantown.

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