Success tends to breed contempt, and that scorn for Auburn fans not only extends to bitter rival Alabama but also to head coach Gus Malzahn for not consistently defeating the Crimson Tide with national championship banners flying high in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The 2017 season saw the Tigers break a three-game losing streak to Bama but the '18 campaign put their embattled coach back on the hot seat after an 8-5 (3-5 SEC) showing that included a 52-21 trouncing by the eventual conference champion and runner-up in the College Football Playoff. If Auburn’s senior-laden squad can make some noise in 2019, they will need a few incoming talents to help carry this team to the finish line.
The War Eagles have consistently recruited well under Malzahn, even if the rankings are not on par with their SEC counterparts. The 2018 class was ranked 12th in the nation and the coaching staff improved on that with a bump up one spot for this cycle. The collection of players coming to The Plains is impressive — two five-stars, 12 four-stars, and seven three-stars in the 21-man class. Aiding in the possibility of turning true freshmen into immediate impact players, nine recruits enrolled early and are already on campus.
Based on skill and position of need, which five Class of 2019 recruits are the top newcomers to watch for Auburn?
Bo Nix, QB
With two-year starter Jarrett Stidham off to test his talents in the NFL, there will be a quarterback battle at Auburn this spring. The top contenders appear to be Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood, and Nix. Nix comes to Auburn about as decorated as one can be — a five-star recruit, an All-American, and the 2018 Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year. His high school career set an Alabama state record for all-time passing yards with more than 12,000, 3,795 of those during his senior year, while throwing for 127 touchdowns to go along with 34 rushing scores. As the son of a former Auburn quarterback, Patrick Nix, also his high school football coach, Bo Nix’s understanding of the game should rival his peers on the Tigers' roster.
As a legacy, Nix’s recruitment was not overwhelming with 18 reported offers. His commitment to Auburn in January 2018 helped keep other college coaches away.
Owen Pappoe, OLB
There is a new breed of defender coming up through the ranks, and Pappoe might be that ideal player in the new role. With college defenses needing athletic linebackers who can stuff the run, defend against the pass, and chase down dual-threat quarterbacks before they get going, the 6-foot, 210-pound standout from Lawrenceville, Georgia, was sought after by 44 schools. Pappoe shinned at national camps, posting a jaw-dropping 4.47 laser-timed 40-yard dash. He used that speed and athleticism to rack up 112 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, and four sacks as a senior.
Auburn’s linebacking corps was all seniors in 2018, meaning every job is open this spring. Another early enrollee, Pappoe will be given plenty of chances to show why he was the top-rated outside linebacker in his class.
Zion Puckett, DB
Puckett was a do-everything kind of athlete for Spalding (Ga.) High School throughout his senior season. He was electric out of the backfield, averaging a robust nine yards per carry and 10 yards per reception. Where his athleticism will be used in college is in the secondary, as he currently projects to be a corner but possesses the size (6-0, 200) of a safety. He compiled 37 tackles with two tackles for a loss and also picked off a pass in 2018 even with teams scheming against him. Auburn’s secondary was lined with juniors last season. Puckett should see plenty of snaps in the secondary during spring practices to see where he can make an impact in 2019.
The desire to land Puckett was widespread with 33 total offers extended. He committed to Auburn this past August over offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, LSU, and Stanford.
Keiondre Jones, OG
Jones is an overpowering guard who has dwarfed his competition to this point in his career. As a run blocker, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound lineman is a pile mover. If he can shed some bad weight over the offseason and come to fall camp ready to compete, he could challenge for a starting spot while providing needed depth in the trenches.
The four-star Callaway (Ga.) High School standout was a top-10 prospect at his position (247Sports) and earned Under Armour All-American honors. Jones picked Auburn over 26 other offers, turning down opportunities from seemingly every top program in the nation.
D.J. Williams, RB
Williams (5-11, 210) was the ultimate Wildcat quarterback during his senior year at Sebring High School, tearing apart 6A Florida defenses with his speed and athleticism. He ran for 1,221 yards with 21 touchdowns and threw for another 1,113 with 13 more scores going up on the board. The speed and burst of quickness Williams has through the hole was missed on Auburn’s roster a year ago. Williams could challenge JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin for playing time. An early enrollee, Williams will get extra practice time this spring to pick up the offense before fall camp. Expect his versatility of understanding offenses with the potential for a tailback pass to be utilized here and there under the direction of Malzahn.
Williams had 20 offers to choose from before committing to and signing with Auburn. He was flipped away from Appalachian State two days before the early signing period in December. Official visits also were also taken to Miami, Alabama, and Georgia.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo by Ryan Wright)