Loyalty proves key for Auburn's 2014 class

AUBURN, Ala. -- There’s nothing quite like the passion in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but sometimes it goes too far. That seems to be the case for ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans, who has been harassed by fans all week since he signed with Alabama. However, Evans isn’t the first in-state recruit to receive backlash, and he certainly won’t be the last.

It’s been nine months since fellow in-state linebacker Tre' Williams committed to Auburn, but he also received plenty of flak for his decision. He heard things like, ‘You’re never going to get a ring,’ or ‘Alabama has so and so (many) rings.’

“That really opened my eyes,” Williams said. “I don't want to be just another team getting a ring. I want to be that team that helps turn the program around.”

Williams wasn’t alone. At the end of last May, Auburn already had eight commitments, including five from the state of Alabama. It didn’t matter that the Tigers were coming off a 3-9 season and their cross-state rival had just won its second national championship. These recruits believed in first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and what he was building on the Plains.

“For me, really from the beginning when I committed May 25, I knew Auburn was going to be something special,” four-star tight end Jakell Mitchell said. “I knew that Gus was going to come in and turn the program around.”

Over the summer, Auburn added six more commitments, including one from running back Racean Thomas, the state’s No. 3 player. And yet, the Tigers had not played a single game under Malzahn. Who knew how long it would take for him to turn the program around? Who knew if he was going to turn it around at all?

“It was hard,” Williams said. “I'm not even going to lie; it was hard because what they were saying was true. 'Auburn sucked last year. Bama has all these rings.' It was true. I couldn't argue with that, but then again I was wanting for the season to come because I was like, 'Wait. Just wait and see what happens.'”

The Auburn coaches had promised recruits they were going to turn things around, and they stayed true to their word. It started with a victory over Washington State in the season opener. Then, a couple games later, the Tigers rallied to beat Mississippi State in their first SEC game. After a loss to LSU the next week, they went on to win nine consecutive games and earned an unexpected trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

The turnaround was complete, maybe a year or two ahead of schedule, but the 2014 recruiting class grew more and more confident with every victory.

“It felt like they really stuck to their word,” Williams said. “They weren't just saying that to bring me in. They were really determined to turn the place around, and they did.

“The other thing is it didn't just affect me, it affected everyone else. We had other commitments, and they said the same thing. Coach Malzahn and Coach [Dameyune] Craig were telling them they were going to change the program, and they did.”

The class expanded as Auburn kept winning, and the staff was able to flip Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts, a pair of ESPN 300 cornerbacks who were committed to Alabama.

But more importantly, the early commitments -- the ones who made a verbal pledge to Auburn before the first game -- they stayed true to their word. They didn’t look around or take any visits to other schools. They didn’t question their decision; they remained loyal.

“I really appreciate the loyalty of our commitments,” Malzahn said on signing day. “In this day and time, that’s very rare. A lot of these guys committed when we came off winning three games. It was very tough. They really believed in what we were doing, and that's also tough to do. But they hung in there with us.

“Obviously, we won and all that, but there's a great appreciation for those guys who came on board before we started winning. And now that we've won, I really feel like that will help us in years to come even more than it did this year.”