AUBURN, Ala. — The moment Montravius Adams clutched a bear paw around an orange-brimmed Auburn University ball cap and placed it over his dreads, the dozens of officials anxiously watching in the War Eagle Conference room did their part to wake the neighbors.
Hoots and hollers, high-fives and hysterics, fist bumps all around.
“Give me some more of that,” an ear-to-ear grinning Gus Malzahn implored to right-hand-man Rodney Garner, a man who earned his paycheck (and then some) Wednesday morning. “God, that’s big.”
That was the goal: get bigger on defense. Stronger. Meaner.
Mission accomplished on national signing day, when Auburn settled in at around the back end of the top ten on most recruiting services’ class of 2013 team rankings by welcoming in 20 signees Wednesday (joining three early enrollees from January.)
That’s an impressive feat, considering Malzahn, Garner and their new colleagues had barely two months to convince blue-chip prospects to come play for a 3-9 squad and a new staff.
“I tell you what, it was a great feeling when he put on that Auburn hat,” Malzahn said. “That was a special feeling. Coach Garner’s had a relationship with him a long time. They’re extremely close.
“Everybody in the country was wanting him. But when he got home to Auburn — he loved Auburn before. When he came back on, he said, ‘I still feel the same way.’ So that was a very exciting moment this morning.”
Adams was the pleasant surprise of the morning, a five-star defensive tackle from Dooly County, Ga., who just as easily could have picked home-state Georgia, first love Clemson, or defending champion and Auburn nemesis Alabama.
“I love the coaches there, I love the players there, and it’s just the place that I think I want to be,” Adams said after announcing his decision on ESPNU’s daylong coverage.
There was more welcome news at the crack of dawn, when four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel’s name was on the first signed national letter of intent to emerge from the fax machine. Daniel had been committed to Ole Miss since Jan. 20, and was previously a Clemson pledge as well.
“It was a real tough decision. It was, like, late last night I was deciding,” Daniel said. “(I loved) their track record, Coach Garner’s track record, the players they’re welcoming in, and Auburn’s good people.”
Throw in Auburn holding serve by retaining summer verbal Carl Lawson — considered the nation’s top prospect not named Robert Nkemdiche — and Garner just landed three fresh-faced toys to play with next fall in the form of two 250-pound pass-rushers and a 310-pound run-stuffer.
“Coach Garner’s a great coach, and he’s going to have three guys that have a chance to help us immediately,” Malzahn said. “I know Coach Garner’s extremely excited.”
No, there’s no Dee Liner — he’s off to Alabama, just like Reuben Foster — but this is one heck of a D-Line.
“Y’all know in this league, you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and the defensive line was a focus,” Malzahn said. “The three guys we have, we feel like are three of the best in the entire country.”
Daniel was one of six total Auburn signees who were flipped from other schools. Running back Peyton Barber (Ole Miss), offensive lineman Deon Mix (Mississippi State), receiver Tony Stevens (Florida State, Texas A&M), receiver Dominic Walker (Nebraska) and safety Khari Harding (Arkansas) all were pledged elsewhere before ending up officially agreeing to play on the Plains.
Out of nine verbal commits who had stayed true to the program since before Gene Chizik’s firing Nov. 25 — a group that contains Lawson — eight stayed true to their word, including in-state quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, receiver Earnest Robinson, linebacker Cameron Toney and cornerback Kamryn Melton.
The only last-minute defector was defensive end Tashawn Bower, who ended up at LSU. But given the embarrassment of riches now at that position, it barely even mattered.
“We’ve got to have pass rushers. We’ve got to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing,” said Malzahn, identifying one of many 2012 bugaboos. “I feel like the defensive ends can do that.”
Of course, recruiting rankings are only as good as the hard work the incoming freshmen put into their college careers. But Malzahn mandated he filled all the Tigers’ needs — especially along the defensive line.
“They wouldn’t have signed Adams without Garner. Wouldn’t have happened,” said AuburnSports.com managing editor Justin Hokanson, a Rivals recruiting analyst. “I think Adams had a great relationship with the other staff, and they had a really good shot of getting him, but when that staff left, I gave them basically no shot, even going into his visit.”
“But Garner came through huge.”