Why Auburn coach Bryan Harsin's instate recruiting strategy has some top programs miffed
AUBURN — The message was inspirational to the kid and an aphorism for Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin, summing up his underdog recruiting mentality.
Auburn High School coach Keith Etheredge heard Harsin say it: “You may not have all those stars, but I’ve seen you play. I’ve made a living off of beating a lot of four- and five-star kids with guys like you.”
“It’s awesome for a kid to get to hear that,” Etheredge said. “It gives a kid a lot of fire.”
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. The challenge facing Harsin as he enters his second season at Auburn is making inroads while his program is geographically sandwiched between Nick Saban’s established Alabama machine and Kirby Smart’s emerging Georgia juggernaut.
Harsin’s future was under the microscope in February during an internal investigation involving his treatment of players and staff. Auburn president Jay Gogue announced Feb. 11 that Harsin will remain the coach in 2022. He has his second chance, but his recruiting remains an urgent issue.
Harsin’s first signing class was Auburn’s lowest-ranked (No. 19) in over a decade. The Tigers did not add anybody to their 2022 class on National Signing Day earlier this month. Harsin has a golden opportunity to rebound: The upcoming 2023 talent pool in Alabama is the state’s deepest and most top-heavy of this century. How well Harsin capitalizes on it can decide his future with the Tigers.
State full of prospects
According to the 247Sports Composite, the last time 11 top-200 recruits called Alabama home was 2008. In 2023, the state has 11 of the top 100. In the last 20 years, Alabama averaged 4.05 top-100 recruits, 7.05 top-200 and 10.3 top-300.
For 2023, the only states with more top-100 recruits are Florida and Texas. Alabama has more in its backyard than other traditionally talent-rich SEC states, including Louisiana and Georgia.
Forced to reckon with established powers, what has Harsin done to make recruiting inroads in his first 14 months? The Advertiser spoke to 14 Alabama high school coaches about how Auburn has recruited their programs. Those who have met Harsin and spent time with him were left with a positive impression of an honest, down-to-business recruiter. The only problem was that a number of coaches at prominent football schools have not met him.
‘You actually show up’
When Ed Rigby coached junior college football in Mississippi, a colleague told him an essential truth about recruiting that has stuck with him through his three decades in the industry: “In the years that you have players, you are everybody’s best friend. The years you don’t have players, they don’t know your name.”
The former Jackson State offensive coordinator has now spent four seasons as head coach at Eufaula High School in southeast Alabama, about 80 minutes from Auburn.
“If I'm the head coach at any college, that’s the first thing I would do: Win the battle in your backyard — which is hard to do vs. Alabama,” Rigby said. “Win the battle in my backyard at all costs. Win those battles, keep as many people home, and love, love, love on those high school coaches. Make them your biggest fans.”
This is a year when Rigby does have players — most notably four-star defensive lineman Yhonzae Pierre and three-star offensive lineman Patrick Screws. Former Auburn defensive line coach Nick Eason visited Eufaula in December, but he is the only Auburn staffer Rigby has seen at the school.
Eason is at Clemson now. Rigby hasn't met Harsin.
Thompson High School in Birmingham is one of the perennial prep football powers in Alabama. In the 2022 class, the state's No. 1 and No. 7 recruits played at Thompson. The 2023 class is even better, led by two five-stars: Cornerback Tony Mitchell (No. 2 in Alabama) and defensive lineman Peter Woods (No. 4) are both top-25 prospects in the country.
Longtime Thompson coach Mark Freeman said that he has never met Harsin when asked after National Signing Day. He has heard similarly from other Birmingham coaches. Harsin hadn’t been to Thompson.
It's a recurring theme: Seven of the 14 coaches who spoke with the Advertiser had not met Harsin. Whether or not that’s a serious concern varies depending on the coach. Some believe it’s unreasonable to expect Harsin to contact every in-state school so quickly. Others said the bare minimum is to have made that a top priority by now. A number of coaches were baffled that they haven't interacted with Auburn's head coach. One said Harsin's continued absence is "just insane to me." An extended COVID-19 recruiting dead period ended June 1, 2021.
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Montgomery Catholic Prep is another school with consistent talent. Coach Kirk Johnson has handled the football team’s recruiting for a number of years, developing ties at Auburn. He and AU defensive backs coach Zac Etheridge are close friends. Johnson calls former Auburn assistant Travis Williams “probably the best freaking recruiter I’ve ever been around.”
But Johnson was confused that “we just signed three defensive players to major universities, and only one of them had an Auburn offer.” (Two went to Clemson; the other to Tennessee.) After National Signing Day, Harsin had not visited Montgomery Catholic, which is 50 minutes from Auburn. The only time Johnson had met Harsin was during a FaceTime with Etheridge, during which the assistant coach briefly put Harsin on the phone. Auburn is now making a push for four-star 2023 running back Jeremiah Cobb from the school.
“If we’re being honest, it’s going to be hard to get multiple kids against Georgia or Alabama,” Johnson said. “I think Auburn has to make a decision: Do you want to continue to battle Georgia and ‘Bama guys in recruiting, or do they want to just go find really good high school players and build their name off that? … I think that’s just kind of the bridge or the gray area they’re going to have to face here soon: You’re not ‘Bama, and you’re not Georgia. And that’s OK. Be your own program and stop missing out on really good Alabama kids because Alabama didn't offer them.”
One of Harsin's strategies in that regard has been emphasis on local recruiting. Auburn hadn't signed an Auburn High School player since 2009, but Harsin landed offensive lineman Eston Harris Jr. and linebacker Powell Gordon in 2022. The Tigers' first 2023 commit is also from Auburn High: four-star offensive lineman Bradyn Joiner.
Harsin's son plays for Auburn High. Coach Keith Etheredge has enjoyed watching Harsin develop relationships at the school.
"Most of the kids growing up here, most of them aspire to play for Auburn; it's their hometown," Etheredge said. "Some of those kids who didn't have all the stars that (Harsin) brought in are really good players. I think that you trust your evaluation, and you don't put too much emphasis on the stars. You trust your evaluation of kids. The more kids that get on campus, you're going to see him put his stamp on the type of kids he wants to recruit."
In the past, Auburn has found some of its best talent in Mobile, including Williamson High School cornerback Roger McCreary, a three-star prospect who developed into a first-team All-American. Auburn’s top signee in the 2022 class was Williamson linebacker Robert Woodyard, a flipped commitment from Alabama. Harsin, former defensive coordinator Derek Mason and a number of assistants visited Williamson during Woodyard's recruitment, and coach Melvin Pete Jr. was impressed by their “professional style.” Pete enjoyed a conversation with Harsin in December about how Auburn schemed in the Iron Bowl.
On the other hand, Vigor High School coach John McKenzie thinks Mobile is often overlooked by recruiters. He has not met Harsin. When Etheridge visited in January, “it was the first and only time we have communicated with Auburn.” Vigor has two rising talents: junior defensive end Michael Towner and freshman offensive lineman Micha Debose.
“I believe all the state schools beside (Alabama) and Tuskegee University can do a better job with in-state recruiting. Especially in the Mobile area,” McKenzie wrote in a text. He said Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri “visited our school at least once per week when time was permitted.”
Another prominent coach in Alabama who spoke on condition of anonymity, when asked the biggest difference between Alabama and Auburn, had a simple response: “Coach Saban has come by and spent up to an hour visiting with us. And we’ve never seen Coach Harsin on campus.”
At Eufaula, Rigby says Alabama assistant Charles Kelly is good at staying in touch. “I’m not choosing sides on Alabama-Auburn,” Rigby says, but the most important recruiting trait to him is when a college coach visits even in those years when the high school doesn’t have top-rated players.
“What I like to see is you actually show up,” Rigby said. “What I like to see is somebody who keeps coming by: ‘Coach, I know you ain't got nothing for me this year, but tell me about who does have somebody for me. You’re playing Central and Opelika: Tell me what they’ve got. Hey, what are your thoughts on this player? Hey, you played so-and-so, tell me about him.’
"Those are the guys you develop that relationship with, that when the chips are down, you need a little help, need a little bump, they’ll help you out.”
Rigby said newly-hired Troy coach Jon Sumrall has made it his goal “to go visit every high school, to walk through the doors of every high school in Alabama. So if you can do it at that level, you can do it at an SEC level.”
'Change the narrative'
After 90 minutes of talking football, Darrell Higgins couldn’t believe Harsin was still in his office.
It was late January, and Harsin and receivers coach Eric Kiesau were visiting Mars Hill Bible School in Florence. Higgins was impressed. It was as long as any college coach had stayed to chat.
“I think he’d still be sitting there talking if I didn’t have to get up and go work my kids out,” Higgins said.
High school coaches who have been visited by Harsin in the last year have appreciated his honesty and his straightforward approach. Harsin's message on the recruiting trail has been firm: Auburn wants a specific type of player who is ready to love football and meet his demanding standards.
"I've been around a lot of coaches, and he may be one of the most competitive guys I've talked to as far as what he expects," Keith Etheredge said.
Higgins said Harsin’s message was an eye-opening experience for Mars Hill players about the rigors of college football: “He was very adamant on: ‘This is going to take some time. We’ve got some guys here that have got to get on board. They’re not practicing the way we want them to practice. They’re not showing up for meetings on time.’ And (Auburn’s coaches) really don’t have any tolerance for that in the program. They’re going to find guys who want to do all those things.”
Several high school coaches said college coaches often don't do a sufficient job preparing players for the grind during recruitment, which leads to athletes being blindsided and more likely to leave. Coaches liked that Harsin didn't hold back in that regard.
One of the state’s current football hot spots is G.W. Carver High School in Montgomery. The No. 1 and No. 6 recruits in the state’s 2023 class attend Carver: defensive lineman James Smith and edge Jaquavious Russaw. Both are top-40 nationally. When the recruiting contact period started last fall, Harsin was the first college coach to bring his full recruiting staff to the school.
“They’ve probably done the best job as far as being seen; He’s been here multiple times,” coach Marcus Gardner said. “And the whole country has been here, pretty much.”
Gardner, who’s entering his second year at Carver, said he and Harsin talked about their common experiences in new jobs. “I’m not a fan of anybody, but I just respected him coming in and talking about getting the culture right,” Gardner said. “He wanted to change the narrative.”
Near Birmingham, Gardendale’s Kelby Collins is No. 74 overall in the 2023 class. Gardendale coach Chad Eads is another multi-decade coaching veteran who has “seen all kinds of things that I didn't like and things I wish they wouldn't say.” But he was impressed with Harsin when he and a few assistants visited recently. Eads appreciated Harsin asking for ideas and advice about organizing a coaching clinic.
“He spent a lot of time here talking, and he didn't have to do that. I knew he had a plane to get to, and I kept trying to hurry him out,” Eads said. “Always appreciate that ... when (coaches) don't just slip in the back door and see a kid and get out. They understand what that does for high school — that makes it an exciting day when Coach Harsin or Coach Saban shows up.”
Eads and former Pinson Valley coach Sam Shade (now at Miles College) were among the high school coaches who met Harsin at a seven-on-seven camp in summer 2021. Shade, a former Alabama player, enjoyed his conversations with Harsin and thought Harsin was a good Auburn ambassador. Pinson Valley often has talent (see: Bo Nix). Even though none of Shade’s players had an offer from Auburn during the last recruiting cycle, Harsin was trying to make a visit before getting sidetracked. Shade thought Harsin did a good job communicating through his assistants, especially Etheridge.
Auburn’s staff – particularly Etheridge and director of high school relations Brendt Bedsole, a former high school coach – has impressed high school coaches. Eason was also frequently praised for his recruiting.
Before the early signing period, support staffer Trovon Reed was allowed to do hands-on recruiting because Auburn had a coaching opening; the NCAA restricts the number of assistants who can make home visits, but Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after the regular season. Reed made such a positive impact that the Auburn alum was promoted this week to director of recruiting relations, adding to Harsin's arsenal.
New Auburn defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh has already been around at Highland Home, where defensive end Keldric Faulk is a top-100 recruit who attended Auburn’s recent junior day.
'Learning the culture'
Highland Home coach Will Pouncey hasn’t seen Harsin visit, but he said Auburn’s assistants have had consistent contact. Highland Home has been a “revolving door” of head coaches visiting Faulk, including Tennessee’s Josh Heupel.
"It's not a hard place to recruit to. I think Auburn's going to be OK," Pouncey said. "I think they can recruit with the best — they've proved that in the past."
Before Wade Waldrop became Hoover’s coach recently, he coached five-star cornerback Jahlil Hurley at Florence. Waldrop said he had conversations with Etheridge and Auburn defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, both of whom regularly made themselves available. (Hurley recently committed to Alabama.)
When Harsin visited Mars Hill, he was targeting three-star offensive lineman Koby Keenum, who plays a position of priority for Auburn’s 2023 class. During the 90-minute office conversation with Higgins, Harsin discussed how he’s trying to learn more about Southern culture and the kids here.
That discrepancy was at the center of Auburn's recent turmoil. Higgins was struck by a new coach trying to learn and improve while maintaining his recruiting principles.
“I think he wanted to have what he had at Boise, at Auburn,” Higgins said. “That was probably where it was a little frustrating for him that he wasn’t able to get it there as quickly as he wanted.”