April 4, 2014
Rodney Garner has been among college football’s top recruiters for more than two decades (Lauren Barnard)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – At the epicenter of college football that is the Southeastern Conference, the search for an edge knows no season. And nowhere is that search more intense than on the recruiting trail.
Seven SEC teams were ranked in the nation’s top 10 recruiting classes last February. By the time letters-of-intent had been signed and faxed, the race was already on for the Class of 2015 and beyond. And it is race without a finish line.
Rodney Garner, Auburn’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, has been considered among the nation’s top recruiters for more than two decades. The pressure to succeed, he says, never wanes. Head coaches with multimillion-dollar salaries are expected to win championships. They can’t do it without championship level players.
Visits were once mostly limited to January and February, and most visits were official. Today, prospects from all over the country start making unofficial visits in the spring and continue right through the summer and into the fall.
“Recruiting doesn’t ever stop,” Garner says. “There are kids on campus every, single day. You have to have your A game in recruiting every day. If you don’t, then your competitors are and they are getting ahead of you. It’s just so competitive. You have to be organized. You have to do a good job of film evaluation.”
Auburn has had unofficial visitors at all of its eight spring practices. There’ll be more on hand for Saturday’s scrimmage. None of them will be ignored. The evaluation process has been sped up dramatically.
Wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig, one of Auburn’s all-time great quarterbacks, established himself as a top recruiter at Florida State and moved back home to Auburn after Gus Malzahn replaced Gene Chizik as head coach. He says making accurate evaluations of younger players is crucial.
Craig says he pays no attention to star ratings, relying on what he sees and his own experience.
“I’ve had these eyes for 39 years,” Craig says. “I trust them. I like to watch the film and evaluate them. I don’t worry about other offers. I don’t even look at it. I’ve evaluated a ton of kids, and I haven’t even looked to see who has offered them.
“I think if you start chasing stars, you miss out on a whole lot. If you look at the history of Auburn, we’ve had some great players here that weren’t highly recruited.”
Garner, a former All-SEC Auburn offensive guard, jumped into the recruiting fray in the early 1990s when he joined Pat Dye’s staff. He landed the likes of running back Stephen Davis and linebacker Takeo Spikes. The recruiting game of today is nothing, Garner says, like it was then.
“It’s not even the same deal,” Garner says. “There’s nothing similar except you are recruiting. These kids have been made out to be the next coming of Bo or Tracy or Nick. Sometimes it’s hard for them to live up to all that hype. A lot of them don’t understand what it takes when you get here to be that player.”
With signing day 10 months away, offers are not made without significant thought. Players without offers can improve. Players with offers can regress. Once made, Garner says, an Auburn offer means something.
“A lot of programs will just put out a lot of offers, but they are not committable offers,” Garner says. “They feel like they have to do it to get in the game. Then they rescind so many offers. That tends to raise some questions about what kind of program you are running.
“That’s the thing with Coach Malzahn. When we extend an offer, it’s a committable offer. Some people ask why we are late on some kids. It’s because when we extend an offer, we want to be ready to take that commitment.”
Running backs coach Tim Horton, once the recruiting coordinator at Arkansas, is also renowned as a recruiter as well as producer of 1,000-yard rushers. He embraces the challenge of recruiting in the bright, hot spotlight of the SEC.
"Really, recruiting is my hobby," Horton says. "When I have extra time, I'm going to write a note, watch a video, call a high school coach. I don't fish or hunt or do those things, so my hobby is recruiting. I think, if you are a coach, that is probably a good thing.
"I really enjoy the relationship part, not just with the players but the mamas and daddies and families. I've been really fortunate because I've always felt like I've been at a place where I have a good thing to sell. Definitely, Auburn is a great thing to sell."
The search for players, Craig says, starts in Alabama. He recruits in Mobile, perhaps the state’s most talent-rich area.
“I think we have a lot of untapped talent throughout this state,” Craig says. “We pride ourselves on being blue-collar, hard-nosed and tough. The process is fun. I have passion for what I do. I have passion for my school. I’m just in heaven right now.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: