AUBURN, Ala. — Cameron Toney had his convictions. The linebacker from Huntsville, Ala. knew why he was all in on Auburn.
Not because of Gene Chizik. Not because of Brian VanGorder or a particular defensive scheme.
Because it’s Auburn.
“Before I committed,” said Toney, who did so in April 2012, “I always told myself, pick a school that you’ll fall in love with, not just for football. Auburn’s all about family, the student section, the atmosphere, and also the education, most importantly. I didn’t commit because of a coach or coaching staff.”
Neither did eight other players who originally said ‘yes’ to Chizik and his staff, but will end the long wait by signing their national letters of intent today to play for Gus Malzahn and his assistants.
Quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Defensive end Carl Lawson. Skilled athletes Earnest Robinson, Jason Smith and Tashawn Bower — they all had to hear Malzahn and company convince them to stick around.
“I just see more discipline in this new coaching staff,” Toney said. “More discipline than the last one.”
It’s not always an easy task, to be told twice by two different voices to stick with the same decision.
“Yeah, you would think the kids would pick the school for more about the school and just one or two coaches, or even the team,” said Chad Simmons, Fox Sports/Scout.com national recruiting analyst.
“But all these kids dream about playing in the NFL, so they go to these schools thinking that this quarterbacks coach or that defensive scheme can help me get to that elite level.”
Therefore, Simmons continued, any new coaching staff — and Auburn wasn’t alone in the SEC, with Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee also in transition — has an uphill battle to climb.
“The head coach has to show the kid and the family they’re still the perfect fit, the perfect environment for them,” Simmons said. “It’s a tough job when a coach comes in early- to mid-December and really only has six weeks to really build that relationship that some schools have had for two or three years.”
The process was especially confusing for a guy like five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams, who saved his final official visit for Auburn this past weekend.
“I got close to both coaching staffs — I probably was a little closer to the last one, because I’ve been over here and I met them a lot,” Adams said. “But I like (this) coaching staff.”
Adams’ interest in Auburn was saved by new associate head coach Rodney Garner, who was close with Adams when recruiting him to Georgia on the other side of Christmas.
“Yeah, I think anytime a completely new staff comes in, you’re going to play catch-up,” Malzahn said Jan. 19. “But our coaching staff’s done a great job of identifying the guys and really recruiting them hard, so I’m very pleased.”
Knowing he couldn’t be wavered, Toney began his own recruitment efforts — trying to keep this class together and strengthen the group much as possible.
“There’s a couple guys I know that committed to Auburn just because of the coaching staff,” Toney said. “But I always told them, college football is a business, they come and go … you never know, this might be the best thing. Everything happens for a reason, and a coaching change could help in the long run.”
It didn’t work on everybody. It never does.
Half the Auburn class of commits the morning of Nov. 25 are expected to sign somewhere else, as linebacker Reuben Foster, defensive tackle Dee Liner and seven others decided to withdraw their commitment.
So there will be a certain sense of pride for Toney, Johnson and the others when they affirm their wire-to-wire commitment, through thick and thin, with pen to paper.
“The true colors come out when things go wrong, when things go bad,” Toney said. “And the nine guys that stayed committed are letting their true colors come out.”