A coaching change, a late-night phone call and a box of Honey Buns. This is the story of how JaTarvious Whitlow shocked everybody and signed with Auburn.
The story begins in June when Whitlow, a three-star running back from just up the road in LaFayette, Alabama, impressed the Auburn coaches at one of their camps. Not long after the camp, Whitlow received a phone call from defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who extended a scholarship offer for him to come play defensive back at Auburn.
Whitlow received nine offers total, but this would be his only one from the SEC. There was just one problem -- he didn't want to play defense.
So Whitlow moved on from Auburn, and Auburn moved on from him. He visited others schools, and nearly committed to Tulane on a visit to New Orleans before his mother talked him out of it. The week before national signing day, he had narrowed his list to three schools -- Troy, Tulane and UAB -- but had already put it in his mind that he was going to Tulane.
"We were satisfied with his top three," his mother, Pamela Holloway said. "All those are good schools. Academically and everything, they were good schools. We told him, 'Whichever way you go, you deserve it. We're going to let you make that decision.'"
However, when Whitlow was taking visits and narrowing his list, the first domino fell that ultimately led him back to Auburn.
On Jan. 21, a week and a half before signing day, Gus Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey to be his new offensive coordinator. At some point over the next eight days, Lindsey sat down and watched Whitlow's tape. Malzahn had always liked Whitlow ever since that camp but needed Lindsey to get on board if they were going to offer him to play wide receiver.
"He's a guy that has really been on my mind for a while," Malzahn said. "He came to camp this summer and had an outstanding camp. The defensive coaches were kind of looking at him as a safety and the offensive coaches were looking at him as an athlete, receiver type.
"When Chip got here, we pulled up the film again, not just the game film but the film of him this summer at camp. We just felt like we needed him to be part of the offense."
Lindsey reached out to Whitlow's high school coaches the Monday morning before signing day to relay the news that they were interested in him as a wide receiver. When Whitlow found out, he was ecstatic. He called his mom, "screaming and hollering" with excitement. But he didn't tell the rest of the school the good news. Not yet.
The next night around 10 p.m. – it was less than 12 hours before Whitlow was supposed to announce his college choice at his high school – he got a call from Malzahn who officially offered him as a wide receiver.
"He just fit," Malzahn said. "He's got a lot of playmaking ability. He's a big strong guy that has a lot of athletic ability, and he's just right down the road."
The next day was signing day. Whitlow's father had to run out and pick up an Auburn hat from Hibbett Sports that morning -- as a die-hard Alabama fan, it was the first piece of Auburn gear he's ever bought in his life. Meanwhile, his mother was in charge of placing the other three hats on the table where her son would be making his college choice. She didn't know where he was going.
Nobody did. Whitlow's classmates were taking bets, thinking he would either choose Tulane or UAB. They had no idea that Auburn was back in the picture.
So Whitlow sat at the table with the three hats in front of him. There was no Auburn hat. His family was next to him, and a group of cheerleaders and coaches were standing behind him. He picked up the Tulane hat first. His mother looked over at him and said "Six hours away?" He threw the hat down. About that same time, a friend of his handed him a box of Honey Buns.
"I'm obsessed with Honey Buns," Whitlow later explained.
He ripped off one of the edges, reached inside and pulled out an Auburn hat. Everybody in the room was shocked.
— Natalie Peluchette (@NatPeluchette) February 1, 2017
"Everybody knew Auburn had offered, but they thought they had stopped [recruiting me]," Whitlow said. "So they didn't think I was going there. There were people making bets where I was going, and everybody thought I was going to Tulane. But I ended up signing with Auburn and shocked the whole world."
Even his mother was surprised. She knew about the Honey Bun idea ahead of time, but she thought Whitlow was going to eat an actual Honey Bun out of the box after he made his decision. She didn't know there was going to be an Auburn hat in there.
"It looked like it was so planned, but it was not," Holloway said. "I promise you it was not."
At the end of the day, Whitlow is headed to his dream school to play the position he always wanted to play. And what better way to announce it then by pulling a hat out of a box of your favorite snacks?