Four-star running back Byron Cardwell, one of the first big-name 2021 recruiting targets of Auburn's Bryan Harsin era, committed to Oregon on Monday.
That was the move most expected he would make, though, so it’s hard to consider that another blow to Auburn during what has been a difficult cycle coinciding with a coaching change. In fact, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of fan, there’s a way in which you can view Cardwell’s recruitment as a positive.
Auburn wasn’t on the San Diego native’s radar at the time of Harsin’s hire. The offer — one of more than 20 from Power 5 programs — came on Jan. 13. And the No. 8 running back in the class liked what he heard from coaches enough that a program 2,000 miles away vaulted into his top four by the time he was ready to make his decision.
“I think we’ve made a lot of connections,” Harsin said Thursday when asked, generally, about Auburn’s recruiting efforts during the first four weeks of his tenure.
“There’s been some re-offers and those types of things because I don’t want to assume just because what’s happened here applies to what we’re doing. So we’ve had to make those connections, had to build those relationships. That’s really what recruiting is: Making sure that guys understand who we are, what our expectations are, the vision for where we want to go with this program and then how they’d fit in.”
The Tigers have a lot of ground to make up in 2021 and not a lot of time to do it with the Feb. 3 National Signing Day fast approaching. They signed some good pieces in December — most notably top-10 defensive tackle Lee Hunter, four-star safety Ahmari Harvey and standout Houston quarterback Dematrius Davis — but only 11.
That class ranks 48th nationally and 12th in the SEC. And only 19 of 359 blue-chip prospects remain uncommitted, per 247Sports.
But there are still plenty of players out there that Auburn can try to land. Which is good: Asked specifically what the team’s needs are, Harsin said “running back, O-line, D-line, linebacker, DBs and wide receivers,” so, basically, everything.
A few names to watch:
—Three-star athlete Tar’varish Dawson (Lehigh Acres, Fla.): Committed to the Tigers in May. Decided not to sign in December after Gus Malzahn was fired, but never decommitted. Could play wide receiver or defensive back.
—Three-star running back Jarquez Hunter (Philadelphia, Miss.): Like Cardwell, Auburn didn’t offer Hunter until earlier this month. Unlike Cardwell, Auburn is considered the favorite to land him, and needs to — three transfers have left Tank Bigsby and Shaun Shivers as the only two scholarship running backs on the roster.
—Three-star safety Juwon Gaston (Montgomery): South Carolina was seen as the leader but Auburn has surged after extending an offer to the Carver standout last Wednesday. Can Harsin take something else from the Gamecocks?
—Three-star cornerback Dontae Balfour (Starke, Fla.): Named Auburn to his top three on Sunday along with LSU and North Carolina.
—Three-star offensive tackle Colby Smith (Reidsville, N.C.): Decommitted from Tennessee when coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired and received an offer from Auburn the next day. He has a good relationship with offensive line coach Will Friend, who spent the past three seasons with the Volunteers.
—Four-star linebacker Trevin Wallace (Jesup, Ga.): Auburn was considered the favorite in early December, but the defensive coaching staff has been completely overhauled since then.
—Four-star defensive end Dylan Brooks (Roanoke-Handley): The No. 51 player in the 2021 class signed with Tennessee in December but asked for his release in the wake of Pruitt’s firing. Auburn was a factor for him before and could be again if that release is granted.
If Auburn signs Dawson and lands those five uncommitted players, its class would jump up to 21st nationally. Add Brooks, and you’re talking about the No. 19 class with a few spots left over.
Of course, those are two very big “ifs.” But it shows that there is still a path for the Tigers to sign a solid 2021 class despite changing head coaches and nine of 10 assistants in the span of six weeks.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Harsin said. “I think we’re doing really well with our ’21 (class).”
And next Wednesday isn’t the only day where a roster can be improved — Auburn has been busy sending out offers to 2022 prospects and even offered the No. 1 cornerback in the 2023 class on Monday.
“That will be the first opportunity for us to sign guys on that day. But that’s going to continue on all the way through the spring,” Harsin said. “There’s going to be more recruiting. There’s going to be things that happen. There’s going to be NCAA rule changes (regarding one-time transfer waivers) that will go into effect. So there’s still a lot of work to be done. It never ends. Recruiting never ends.”