Updating Auburn's football recruiting and coaching staff search

Rodney Garner press conference on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 in Auburn, AL. - Missy Hazeldine

The Auburn football program has been busy during the holiday season.

We are nearing the end of the recruiting dead period, and it seems we are in the quiet before the storm. Gus Malzahn has a few spots remaining to fill on his coaching staff, all on the offensive side of the ball, before we can fully analyze it as a whole. The turnover in the NFL today could be a precursor for one or more of those positions being filled. While we are looking forward to turning the page on another year, let’s recap what we’ve missed during the Holiday’s before looking ahead to 2013.

It has been a roller coaster ride in recruiting since Gene Chizik was fired, as Auburn has seen several prospects decommit. A couple of high profile recruits were on shaky gound prior to Chizik’s dismissal, and removing that relationship pushed them to consider other options. Linebackers Trey Johnson and Reuben Foster were key losses to this recruiting class, as was wide receiver JaQuay Williams (now committed to Texas A&M). Johnson now appears to have Ohio State out in front and Auburn nowhere to be found on his favorites list. The Tigers are still very much in the mix with Foster, and he appears to be building a relationship with the new coaching staff. Other decommits such as linebacker Jarrod Davis (now committed to Florida), safety Lemond Johnson (now committed to Tennessee), tight end Arshad Jackson, and cornerback Jahmere Irvin-Sills may have been more of a mutual parting of ways.

But December wasn’t all about loss on the recruiting trail. Gus Malzahn has managed to sign two early enrollees form the junior college ranks that hope to contribute right away. Cameron Artis-Payne, Rivals' No. 1 rated juco running back, and DeVonte Danzey, Rivals' No. 1 rated juco offensive lineman, will enroll in January and go through spring practice. Artis-Payne is a big back with quick feet, and he should fit into Malzahn’s system well and fill a similar role as Ben Tate did in 2009. Danzey is an athletic big man who could fill the need for an interior lineman at one of the guard spots following the departure of guard Christian Westerman, who transferred back closer to home to Arizona State.

Several new recruits’ names have popped up on the radar lately. However, with the dead period in full swing we will have to wait until later this month to see whether or not they visit Auburn before getting too excited. We’ll delve a little deeper into the recruiting in the coming weeks, as visits pick up and signing day draws near. Right now, Malzahn’s first priority is finalizing his coaching staff.

Auburn's new head coach has put together an experienced group of coaches on the defensive side of the ball, starting with his defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson. After being let go from a no-win situation as head coach at Southern Miss, Johnson topped the wish list of many in need of a defensive coordinator. In true hurry-up fashion, Malzahn wasted no time in hiring Johnson. His 4-2-5 base defense is unique and built to defend spread offenses. The next hire made was a good friend of Johnson’s in Charlie "Cheese" Harbison. Harbison left the Clemson coaching staff, where he was co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, for the same title on Auburn’s new staff. This was followed by bringing home Rodney Garner to serve as the assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, the same title he held at Georgia. The defensive coaching staff was completed with the hiring of Mississippi State's Melvin Smith to coach cornerbacks.

One thing that jumps out about the defensive coaching staff is the experience these coaches have within the SEC and their familiarity with each other. Ellis has served as defensive coordinator at three different SEC schools during his career, most recently at South Carolina, where he helped recruit players such as Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. Harbison, known as a top-notch recruiter, and Johnson have coached together at a couple of stops, including Mississippi State. Ingram, who recently tutored Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, was also on that MSU staff in 2007. That familiarity should help the coaches stay on the same page with what they want to accomplish. While Garner has not previously coached with the others on staff, he does bring a wealth of experience and knowledge from the past 14 years in Georgia. Garner left the Bulldogs to return to his alma mater and help the Tigers rebuild. He’s built a reputation as an excellent defensive line coach, as well as being one of the best recruiters in college football. Harbison and Smith are expected to split the secondary coaching duties, with Smith coaching the corners and Harbison coaching safeties and calling coverages. Garner will handle the defensive line, while Johnson will coach the linebackers and handle play-calling.

Back on the offensive side of the ball, Malzahn still has a little work to do to round out the coaching staff. So far, he has brought Rhett Lashlee and J.B. Grimes (no relation to Jeff Grimes) with him from Arkansas State. Lashlee is Malzahn’s right hand man and will serve as offensive coordinator, and no one knows Malzahn's offense better, as Lashlee played quarterback for the coach in high school, then served as a grad assistant at Auburn. The two are expected to share play-calling responsibilities at Auburn, just as they did this past year at ASU. Grimes is a seasoned veteran offensive line coach with experience in the SEC, as well as with spread offenses, and he will bring toughness and physicality to the offensive line.

That leaves three on field position coaching spots left to fill. Malzahn will need to find someone to coach running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends/h-backs, and one of these coaches will also likely serve as the special teams coordinator, as well. There have been few names mentioned as candidates for these positions, however, a couple have surfaced and should be watched in the coming days. Rich Bisaccia is the current assistant head coach for special teams for the San Diego Chargers, but with the San Diego staff in flux, he is rumored to be a leading candidate to coach running backs and special teams at Auburn. According to Chris Vannini at coachingsearch.com, Bisaccia has been offered the position, but he may be waiting to see if head coaching opportunities surface at Syracuse or Penn State. Bisaccia is highly regarded as one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL, and he could certainly stay in the league if he chose to do so. He has experience coaching running backs in the SEC, and if Malzahn manages to pull off this hire, it would certainly be a grand slam.

Former Arkansas running backs coach, Tim Horton, has also been rumored to be a candidate for a position on the Tigers' staff. Horton is currently in limbo and is rumored to have an opportunity to join new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s staff as a tight ends coach, or Malzahn’s staff at Auburn. What would his role be if hired at Auburn? Right now, that is unknown. He has previous experience coaching running backs, wide receivers and tight ends so theoretically, he could fill any of the open positions. He also served as Arkansas’ recruiting coordinator and is an Arkansas alum, so it may be difficult to pry Horton from Fayetteville.

Despite previously turning down an opportunity to join the staff at Auburn, former Tiger quarterback Dameyune Craig is still being floated out there as a possibility to join the staff in some capacity. At this point, that would likely be as a wide receivers coach. While this would definitely be a great hire, it seems unlikely to happen. It's hard to imagine Craig, who seems to hold some ill will toward his alma mater, would turn down a coaching offer, then accept a few weeks later.

With the current recruiting dead period set to end on Jan. 4, and at least one visitor expected on campus this weekend, we could see a flurry of activity in the next day or so. However, Sunday begins another week long dead period, while coaches attend the annual AFCA coaches convention. If the staff is not completed by this weekend, it’s certainly plausible to see the final puzzle pieces in place next week before the first big recruiting weekend on Jan. 11.

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