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Chizik, Auburn putting together surprising top five recruiting class

When the final 2010 recruiting class rankings are announced late Wednesday, you'll likely see four familiar names -- Florida, Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma -- sitting at or near the top. It makes sense -- they happen to be the four most recent BCS Championship Game participants.

A more surprising entrant, however, should round out the top five: Auburn.

The Tigers currently sit third in Rivals.com's rankings, boasting commitments from former Florida and Blinn Community College quarterback Cam Newton, Rivals' only five-star juco recruit; the nation's No. 2 running back, Michael Dyer (Little Rock, Ark.); and top 10 offensive linemen Shon Coleman (Olive Branch, Miss.) and Erick Mack (St. Matthews, S.C.).

And the class could still get richer by Wednesday: The nation's No. 1 running back, Marcus Lattimore (Duncan, S.C.), is set to choose between South Carolina and Auburn, while four-star defensive tackle Bryan Jones (Junction City, Ark.) and four-star defensive end Corey Lemonier (Hialehah, Fla.) remain in the mix as well. On the flip side, Coleman could end up signing with Alabama or Miami.

With or without Coleman, the class will be a remarkable feat considering where the program stood at the time it began recruiting most of these players. A year ago, Auburn was coming off a 5-7 season, and the Tigers had yet to play a game under current coach Gene Chizik. Many skeptics (myself included) wondered how Chizik -- coming off a two-year, 5-19 tenure at Iowa State -- could possibly compete with his cross-state counterpart, Nick Saban, owner of Rivals' top-rated classes in both 2008 and 2009.

Yet here we are a year later, with a team that went 8-5 and won the Outback Bowl last season poised to sign a class that ranks neck-and-neck with Saban's reigning national champions.

"If we can finish this class strong, we feel it will be best class in the history of the school," said Chizik, who served as Auburn's defensive coordinator from 2002-04. "When this recruiting class is over, it's going to be an attention getter for [future recruits] all over the country. They'll see that those kids saw something special in Auburn."

During his first stint at Auburn, Chizik helped recruit several defenders that wound up starring for the Tigers' undefeated 2004 team. When Auburn's talent level dipped shortly thereafter, Chizik was at Texas, learning from one of the sport's most renowned recruiters, Mack Brown, in 2005 and 2006.

His experience at both places appears to be paying dividends.

"Gene Chizik has drawn so much of his philosophy from Mack Brown's blueprint of building a family atmosphere, and it has resonated with recruits," said Tom Luginbill, Scouts, Inc.'s national recruiting director.

Chizik and his staff began selling that notion last spring, a time when many of the nation's top juniors make unofficial campus visits (the school can't pay for their expenses). In order to create buzz and entice elite national prospects to come see The Loveliest Village on the Plains, Auburn hosted its first-ever "Big Cat Weekend" in late May.

The two-day event served as a bonding period for about 20 potential future Tigers. Visitors that weekend included Lattimore, Texas running back Lache Seastrunk (who recently committed to Oregon), Connecticut linebacker Khairi Fortt (Penn State) and at least 10 players that wound up committing to Auburn, including Mack, Coleman, four-star receiver Travon Reed (Thibodaux, La.) and four-star linebackers LaDarius Owens (Bessemer, Ala.) and Jake Holland (Pelham, Ala.).

The coaches made another big splash last spring with their Tiger Prowl. To start their spring-evaluation tour last April, Auburn coaches showed up at high schools across the state in white stretch limousines adorned with Auburn decals and car flags.

"We're in the most competitive part of the country when it comes to recruiting, and we felt we needed to think a little outside the box to get Auburn's name out there a little bit more than it was previously," said Chizik. "We felt if we could get them to campus ... we could seal the deal."

While many rival fans snickered at the gimmicks, they helped the staff reassert their presence within the state.

In the two full recruiting years following Saban's arrival in Tuscaloosa (the '08 and '09 classes), Auburn did not sign a single player ranked among the top 10 in the state. During that same time period, Alabama signed 15.

This year, the battle was far more even -- Saban landed the state's top three prospects (defensive back DeMarcus Milliner, linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive back Jarrick Williams), but Chizik got five of the other seven (Owens, Holland, defensive end Craig Sanders, receiver Jeremy Richardson and defensive tackle Kenneth Carter).

"I said publicly, at the time [Chizik] was hired, that it was absolutely imperative for Auburn to start getting some of the [top] in-state kids," said Rivals.com analyst Jamie Newberg. "Alabama had been just crushing Auburn for in-state kids since Saban got there. This year Auburn really did much better."

Auburn rubbed some in the SEC the wrong away with its unusual new tactics. Some wondered how a school that landed just a handful of five-star prospects under predecessor Tommy Tuberville suddenly wooed three this year. And the school got in some hot water with the NCAA for staging a Big Cat Weekend rolling of Toomer's Corner, a tradition in which students and alumni celebrate a big victory by rolling the trees at a landmark campus intersection with toilet paper. The NCAA deemed it a "game-day simulation," prohibited on recruiting visits, and instituted several limitations on coaches' contact with recruits.

Ultimately, however, there was no lasting damage, and Chizik did not engender the same type of animosity as former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, a more documented rule-bending SEC coach at the time.

"The difference between [Auburn's tactics] and some of the things Lane was doing was that Auburn generated attention that was positive," said Newberg.

All told, the events of last spring seemed to touch off a chain of momentum that's continued all the way up through this week, as four-star defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker (Warner Robbins, Ga.) committed on Monday, choosing Auburn over Georgia and Miami.

"I really believe their efforts in the spring last year have paid dividends throughout the year," said Luginbill.

Receiver Shaun Kitchens (College Park, Ga.) was one of the first to commit, way back in early April. Kitchens enlisted one of his teammates, safety Demetruce McNeal, shortly thereafter. They, along with other early commits like Holland, have helped pursue other recruits they met on their visits.

"They've been picking up four-star and five-star guys all the time, it seems like," McNeal told the Montgomery Advertiser. "I love calling these [new commitments] and saying: 'Welcome to the team.' I was one of the first guys at this party."

The most impactful pledge came the day before Auburn's Outback Bowl win over Northwestern, when Newton -- who many expected to join his former Florida position coach, Dan Mullen, at Mississippi State -- signed on with the Tigers. He's already enrolled.

The 6-foot-6, 245-pound dual-threat athlete served as Tim Tebow's top backup in 2007 and was redshirting in '08 but opted to leave Gainesville following his arrest and suspension for allegedly stealing a laptop. The charges were reduced after he completed a pretrial intervention program, and after leading Blinn to a juco national championship last season, Newton will immediately compete for the Tigers' starting job, vacated by Chris Todd.

"Cam coming here was huge," said Chizik. "He's the only five-star junior college player out there, one of those guys that could have gone anywhere in the country, and he ends up at Auburn. It's a huge statement for where our recruiting is going."

This year, it couldn't have gone much better.

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