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Monday, Dec 11, 2023 | Latest Print Edition

A deep dive into Auburn's 2023 football early signing class

<p>Football and Auburn helmet on the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium against Texas A&amp;M on November 12, 2022.&nbsp;</p>

Football and Auburn helmet on the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium against Texas A&M on November 12, 2022. 

As the fax machines fell silent and the early signing period came to a close on Friday, Auburn’s 2023 football recruiting class began to take shape. Currently, the Tigers have a consensus top-20 class, a far cry from when it was the No. 52 ranked class in the nation shortly after Bryan Harsin was dismissed as head football coach in October. 

Getting the class to where it is now required hard work and dedication on the recruiting trail, and new head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff hit the ground running to maintain relationships with players already committed while developing new ones with players either unsold or pledged to other programs.

Freeze’s comments following day one of the early signing period reflected just that.

“It’s been a wild two weeks for us,” Freeze said. “We came into this considerably behind what I think Auburn should be in recruiting.”

In total, Auburn signed 16 high school players during this year’s early signing period and two community college players: Izavion Miller, a 6’6”, 320-pound offensive tackle from Southwest Mississippi Community College, and Quientrail Jamison-Travis, a 6’4”, 280-pound defensive lineman from Iowa Western Community College.

This year, an emphasis on both lines of scrimmage and the defensive backfield was noticeable, with Freeze and his staff landing six defensive linemen, five offensive linemen and five defensive backs.

According to Freeze, this was by design.

“I thought we really did well with the DB room and made some dents in our needs in the offensive line room. Edge guys I thought we did really well with on defense; we still have some work to do on the interior and on O-line,” Freeze said. “We’re really not through anywhere. We still have some big targets out there that hopefully we can close on now or in January.”

While prized running back commit Jeremiah Cobb of Montgomery (Ala.) Catholic Preparatory did not sign during the early period, this class still ultimately addressed several position groups depleted by NFL declarations and transfers with more time left to add to it.

Here is a breakdown of all 16 early signees from the high school level and how they fit into next season’s edition of the Tigers.

Keldric Faulk - DL, 6’5”, 240; Highland Home HS; Lapine, Ala.

Tied for the highest overall ranked player in the class, Faulk, a consensus 4-star recruit and top-15 defensive lineman that was rated as high as the No. 79 player in the nation by Rivals, was committed to Florida State since July 5, 2022. However, he spurned the Seminoles at the very last second to join Hugh Freeze’s inaugural recruiting class after several pivotal fall visits. With 30 offers, he was highly sought after by programs across the country.

As a senior, Faulk led the Flying Squadron to a 13-2 record and an appearance in the AHSAA 2A semifinals. He was selected to the 2023 All-American Bowl, the 2022 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game and the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s all-state first team.

With NFL draft projections, Faulk is expected to be a major contributor at Auburn. Possessing a long, lean frame, he figures to spend the bulk of his time as a Tiger as an edge rusher. After both Derick Hall and Eku Leota accepted invites to the Senior Bowl, Faulk's arrival will help bolster a position that now features only redshirt freshman Dylan Brooks and fifth-year senior Hayden Brice, whose future is unclear.

Kayin Lee - CB, 5’11”, 185; Cedar Grove HS; Ellenwood, Ga.

Tied with Keldric Faulk for the highest-rated recruit in the class, Lee has exceptional agility, coverage instincts and ball skills and is a player to watch moving forward. A consensus top-25 player in the state of Georgia, he was committed to both Georgia and Ohio State, who many recruiting experts expected him to sign with, at different points in his recruitment. However, it was Auburn who ultimately ended up with Lee in their 2023 class in the end.

As a senior, Lee helped lead the Saints to an 11-3 record and a GHSAA 3A state runner-up finish in a highly-controversial loss to Sandy Creek. A member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 2022 edition of the preseason all-state “Super 11,” Lee was selected for the Army All-American Bowl and earned AJC first-team all-region honors as a result of his on-field performance. A multi-sport athlete, he was also a track and field letterman.

Compared to the other two cornerback commits in this class, who both possess lengthier frames, Lee has a more traditional build. His combination of elite instincts and ball skills, particularly around the hash marks, could make him a valuable slot corner in defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ scheme. Even so, an experienced cornerback room could relegate him to special team duties next season.

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Darron Reed Jr. - DL, 6’5”, 260; Carver HS; Columbus, Ga.

Another lengthy defensive lineman considered to be a 4-star recruit by On3, ESPN and 24/7 Sports, Reed was generally rated as a top-50 player at his position nationally. Boasting 16 offers from schools including Georgia and Ohio State, Reed originally committed to LSU on July 4, 2022, before decommitting on Nov. 25, to join Auburn’s 2023 class.

While at Carver, he led the Tigers to a 9-3 record and a trip to the Georgia 3A state quarterfinals. Reed finished his senior campaign with eight sacks and 33 total tackles, which earned him first-team all-region honors and his being ranked a top-20 prospect in Georgia by both Rivals and 247 Sports.

At the moment, it is difficult to project where on the defensive line Reed will be utilized once he fully enters the program. However, based on the tape, he looks well-suited to play either as an edge rusher opposite Keldric Faulk or as a defensive end in the mold of Colby Wooden. With Wooden’s departure to the NFL, there is ample opportunity for Reed to make an early impact at either edge or defensive end given the issues with depth at both positions.

Sylvester Smith - S, 5’11”, 195; Munford HS; Munford, Ala.

Possessing a prototypical free safety build, Smith was a four-star recruit per ESPN, Rivals and 24/7 Sports that was rated as high as the No. 101 player and No. five safety in the class by Rivals. A longtime Tennessee commit that held offers from schools in all Power Five conferences, he is an explosive athlete that split time as a quarterback, running back, defensive back and kick returner at the prep level.

As a senior, Smith led the Lions to a 6-5 record and the first round of the AHSAA 4A state playoffs. His 42 tackles, four tackles for loss, two pass breakups, five interceptions, 1,735 rushing yards, 24 rushing touchdowns, 606 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns as a senior earned him Alabama Sports Writers Association first-team all-state honors in 2022 to go along with his selection as a sophomore in 2020. Smith was also selected for the 2022 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game.

Seeing that Auburn already has seven safeties expected to return for the 2023 season, there should be no sense of urgency to get Smith on the field at his natural position. However, with his proven playmaking ability, he should be a lock to contribute on special teams while he physically prepares for the rigors of SEC play and learns from Donovan Kaufman and Zion Puckett, who both fit Smith’s physical profile.

Terrance Love - S, 6’3”, 195; Langston Hughes HS; Fairburn, Ga.

The noticeably larger of the two safeties that signed early, Love was a consensus 4-star recruit and considered a top-25 player at his position nationally by Rivals, 24/7 Sports and ESPN.  Despite holding 38 other collegiate offers, the former track star committed to Auburn on April 10, 2022, and never looked back.

During his senior campaign, the Panthers finished with a 15-0 record in 2022 and won the GHSA 6A state championship. Love finished the season with 69 tackles, which put him amongst the top 35 prospects in Georgia according to On3. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he played as both a safety and wide receiver before transitioning to defense full-time this past year. Love has also posted times in the 100-meter as low as 11.60 seconds and the 200-meter as low as 23.52 seconds.

Considering his physical profile, ball-hawking ability and demonstrated willingness to violently fill running lanes, Love projects as a strong safety and compliments Sylvester Smith’s skillset. Similarly to Smith, Love is expected to sit behind players such as Cayden Bridges and Marquise Gilbert while he acclimates to SEC football and learns defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ scheme. 

Wilky Denaud - DL, 6’4”, 295; John Carroll HS; Fort Pierce, Fla.

Yet another defensive line recruit, Denaud was a steady presence in Auburn’s 2023 recruiting class. The recipient of 22 offers, he committed to the Tigers on July 27, 2022, and only officially visited one other school - Indiana - even during a time of turmoil within the program that saw Bryan Harsin relieved of his duties less than two years into his tenure. 

As a senior, Denaud led the Rams to a 10-2 record while tallying 79 tackles and five sacks, which made him a consensus top 80 overall prospect in Florida. A multi-sport athlete, he qualified for the FHSAA state track and field tournament as a junior in the shot put in which he placed 13th at the 1A meet. Denaud also averaged 14.8 points and 7.7 rebounds on the basketball team as a junior as the Rams achieved a 22-5 record and made the FSHAA 3A basketball tournament.

Possessing a larger physical profile than the three other defensive linemen in this class, Denaud is projected to play in the heart of the defense. While he primarily played on the edge for John Carroll, a few years in Auburn’s strength and conditioning program will see him add the requisite strength and mass to withstand blocks from SEC linemen. With at least eight defensive linemen expected to return in 2023, Denaud will most likely not be asked to contribute much next season.

Clay Wedin - OL, 6’6”, 295; Carrollwood Day School; Tampa, Fla.

Generally seen as one of the higher-rated offensive linemen signed by Auburn in this class, Wedin held 36 collegiate offers from schools including Michigan and USC. Originally committed to Michigan State for less than four months, he flipped to the Tigers two weeks after an important unofficial visit at the very beginning of October.

As a starting tackle, Wedin helped the Patriots to a 6-4 record and an appearance in the second round of the 2022 FHSAA 2A playoffs. According to both 24/7 Sports and Rivals, Wedin is a 4-star recruit, the No. 22 interior offensive lineman per 24/7 and the No. 11 offensive lineman in the state of Florida per Rivals.

A lengthy and proportionally-built lineman, Wedin will most certainly play as a tackle for Auburn. While his height would make leverage against stockier interior defensive linemen difficult, it will be an asset against dedicated pass rushers. While the Tigers are in desperate need of quality tackles, Wedin is a developmental project and will most likely not see the field much during his freshman season as he needs to add strength and size to compete in the SEC.

Bradyn Joiner - OL, 6’2”, 330; Auburn HS; Anniston, Ala.

A stout interior lineman that played for The Loveliest Village on the Plains’ prep Tigers, Joiner transferred from Oxford High School - where he was on MaxPreps’ all-American second team as a sophomore - to Auburn High School as a junior. Mostly seen as a 3-star prospect, Joiner held 34 offers from programs all over the nation.

While at Auburn, Joiner helped lead the Tigers to a 12-2 record and an appearance in the 2022 AHSAA 7A state championship game where they were routed by resurgent powerhouse Thompson. His level of play over the years on both sides of the ball earned him numerous accolades, including his selection to the 2022 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game, the 2020 Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 6A all-state first-team as an offensive lineman and the 2021 ASWA Class 7A all-state first-team as a defensive lineman.

With a robust frame, Joiner is projected to play anywhere on the interior offensive line as he was rated as the No. 1 center in the country and No. 156 overall as a four-star player by Rivals. With former guard Keiondre Jones’ departure to Florida State via the transfer portal and lackluster play across what was an uncharacteristically veteran offensive line last season, Joiner’s size could have him competing for playing time early on.

Daquayvious Sorey - WR, 6’2”, 190; Chipley HS; Campbellton, Fla.

Hailing from the Florida Panhandle, Sorey was seen mostly as a 3-star recruit and a top-30 receiver nationally according to 24/7 Sports and ESPN. The holder of 22 offers, Sorey was pursued by teams such as Alabama and Tennessee and was committed to Georgia for more than a year before he decommitted in February of this year. After joining Auburn’s 2023 class in August, Sorey never looked back.

During his senior season, Sorey helped the Tigers to an 11-1 record and an appearance in the second round of the FHSAA 1A playoffs. As a senior, he recorded 1,121 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns, and as a junior, he recorded 546 receiving yards, eight receiving touchdowns, two punt returns for touchdowns, 28 tackles, nine pass breakups and four interceptions. Sorey was a three-sport athlete who also played basketball and ran track, placing fifth in the high jump at the FHSAA 1A state track meet as a sophomore.

A big-bodied receiver, Sorey still has room to grow physically and can become a go-to threat on the outside. On film, his background as a basketball player and a high jumper is evident as he routinely wins at the point of attack and hurdles defenders who fail to keep their heads up through the entire tackling process. As four wide receivers with similar physical profiles are expected to return next season, fans more than likely will not see meaningful reps from Sorey for another year or two.

Connor Lew - OL, 6’3”, 280; Kennesaw Mountain HS; Acworth, Ga.

An aggressive center from the Atlanta metro area, Lew was a consensus 3-star prospect rated among the top 50 overall players in the state of Georgia by 24/7 Sports, On3 and ESPN, with Rivals and ESPN rating him as a top 10 interior line recruit nationally. Over the course of his career, Lew accumulated 24 offers from schools including Miami and Clemson and was committed to the Hurricanes from August up until he flipped to Auburn less than two weeks ago.

While playing center as a senior, Lew helped lead the Mustangs to a 7-3 record while failing to make the playoffs. Despite the disappointing ending to the season, his play warranted an invitation to the 2023 Army All-American Bowl, selection to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-region first team and inclusion in the AJC’s preseason all-state “Super 11.” Additionally, Lew was a wrestling letterman.

The first thing that stands out about Lew’s game is his eagerness to finish blocks. While he is still undersized physically for the SEC level at 280 pounds, that aggression puts him ahead of the curve as the additional mass will come with time and effort in the weight room. Fans should not expect him to contribute on the offensive line immediately, although a clean slate with new offensive line coach Jake Thornton makes anything possible.

Colton Hood - CB, 6’1”, 175; Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy; McDonough, Ga.

Auburn’s second cornerback commit from the state of Georgia this cycle, Hood was a 3-star prospect viewed as a top-75 player at his position by both Rivals and 24/7 Sports, with On3 assigning him a 4-star rating and considering him among the top 30 prospects in Georgia. A short-term Michigan State commit, he flipped to Auburn shortly before the early signing period began.

During his senior campaign, Hood contributed as a cornerback, wide receiver, quarterback and running back as the Chargers finished the season with a 7-5 record and fell in the second round of the GHSAA 2A playoffs. In 2022, he recorded 40 tackles, 3 interceptions, 647 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns, 279 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 186 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. Hood also lettered in basketball and baseball.

A lengthy cornerback, Hood brings prototypical SEC size to the position. His involvement on both sides of the ball along with basketball and baseball immediately shows up on film as he is able to high-point and locate the ball with ease. With a plethora of cornerbacks on the roster with similar physical profiles, Hood is not expected to contribute on the defensive side of the ball, although he figures to be an asset on special teams.

JC Hart - CB, 6’2”, 180; Loachapoka HS; Auburn, Ala.

A hometown hero, Hart is a local preps product that rounds out Auburn’s cornerback room in the 2023 recruiting class. Rated as high as the No. 24 player in Alabama by On3 and the No. 32 player at his position by Rivals, Hart was a consensus 3-star prospect. The recipient of nearly 30 offers from schools such as USC and West Virginia, he committed to the Tigers on Aug. 12, 2022, and, despite taking an official visit to Mississippi State late in the process, never wavered in his decision.

As a senior, Hart helped the Indians to a 9-2 record and the second round of the AHSAA 1A playoffs. He was named to the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s all-state first team and was selected to the 2022 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. As a junior, Hart registered 63 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. His father, Corey Hart, played linebacker at Marshall from 2007-09.

Like Colton Hood, Hart is a lengthy cornerback prospect who played both ways at the high school level. He consistently demonstrated his ability to make opposing players miss in the open field whether it was on kick returns, receptions or interceptions. The tape also showed Hart’s high football IQ and skill at high-pointing the ball. With a plethora of returning cornerbacks, he is expected to contribute mostly on special teams next season.

Tyler Johnson - OL, 6’6”, 300; Natchitoches Central HS; Natchitoches, La.

The only player Auburn has signed from the state of Louisiana this cycle thus far, Johnson was mostly viewed by major recruiting services as a 3-star prospect, though Rivals rated him as high as the No. 16 player in Louisiana, the No. 25 offensive tackle nationally and a 4-star recruit. With 11 offers from schools such as Baylor and Texas Tech, Johnson went somewhat under the radar.

While a senior, Johnson was an important member of the Chiefs’ 3-7 team that missed the LHSAA 5A playoffs. Despite the disappointing conclusion to his preps career, he was invited to participate in the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl. A multi-sport athlete, Johnson, CenLa Preps’ No. 1 offensive lineman in Central Louisiana, also lettered in basketball.

Possessing an already large frame that will require additional filling out before he is ready for the rigors of SEC play, Johnson is a long-term project with plenty of upside. On film, his feet are shown to never stop moving, although his finishing of blocks is inconsistent. With the arrival of 2023 community college signee Izavion Miller, it may be two years or more before Johnson sees the field.

Brenton Williams - DL, 6’4”, 245; Opelika HS; Opelika, Ala.

Another local kid, Williams was a consensus 3-star recruit considered a top 25 player in Alabama by both ESPN and On3. The recipient of 12 collegiate offers, he held scholarships from teams that included Big 10 powers Penn State and Michigan State. A once-Coastal Carolina commit, Williams was offered by Auburn late in the process and pledged himself to the Tigers soon after.

As a senior, Williams helped lead the Bulldogs to a 5-5 record as they narrowly missed out on a berth in the AHSAA 7A playoffs. During the season, he recorded 55 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks, which earned him 2022 AHSAA South Region All-Star and Class 7A all-state first team and Opelika-Auburn News all-area team honors. Williams was also a basketball letterman.

With a prototypical edge frame, Williams spent the majority of the time in a two-point stance for Opelika. Against large-school competition, his ability to win at the point of attack with his speed and length was noticeable. While he appears ready to contribute from day one physically, Williams will need to add more pass-rush moves to his arsenal before he sees extended playing time, even with Auburn’s lack of depth at edge. 

Stephen Johnson - DL, 6’4”, 315; Whitewater HS; Fayetteville, Ga.

One of six players from the state of Georgia signed by Auburn this cycle, Johnson was a consensus 3-star prospect generally seen as one of the top 110 players at his position nationally. Having 11 offers from teams including Maryland and Arkansas, who he was committed to from June 26, 2022, until Dec. 18, five days after he first received an offer from the Tigers.

During his senior campaign, Johnson helped the Wildcats finish with an 8-3 record and reach the GHSAA 4A state playoffs, falling in the first round to Benedictine. He recorded 74 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Johnson was also part of Whitewater’s 2021 team that went 11-2 and reached the quarterfinals of the GHSAA 4A state playoffs. A major contributor in both seasons, he was a two-time second-team all-region honoree.

With a massive frame already prepared for SEC play, Johnson is a classic interior big man who will thrive shaded inside either guard or over the center. With a surprisingly quick get-off and an impressive arsenal of pass-rush moves for a high school defensive lineman, he could compete for limited playing time in a rotation featuring at least five returning players with similar physical profiles.

Hank Brown - QB, 6’4”, 195; Lipscomb Academy; Nashville, Tenn.

The sole quarterback in the class, Brown was a consensus 3-star recruit rated as low as the No. 113 player at his position by On3 and as high as the No. 26 player at his position by Rivals. Having nine collegiate offers from schools including Illinois and Minnesota, he was one of the least-recruited players in Auburn’s 2023 class. A longtime Liberty commit, Brown was not offered by Auburn until shortly after Hugh Freeze was named head football coach.

While a senior, Brown led the Mustangs to a perfect 13-0 record, the 2022 Tennessee D2-AA state championship and the No. 17 ranking in MaxPreps’ Top 25 composite high school football rankings. This past season, he passed for 3,264 yards, 47 touchdowns - fifth-most in Tennessee state history - and completed 73.3% of his passes. Like many other signees in this class, Brown was a dual-sport athlete having played basketball.

Despite the lackluster rating, Brown shined in away wins against Georgia 7A powerhouse Milton and Alabama 7A heavyweights Thompson, winner of the last four AHSAA 7A state championships. Game film shows an ability to fit the ball into tight windows on long throws, and an elite physical build lends itself to an effortless throwing motion. Despite the fact it may take a while for Brown to grab the reigns, it will happen sooner rather than later.

Daniel Schmidt | Assistant News Editor

Daniel Schmidt, senior in journalism, is the assistant news editor for the Auburn Plainsman. 

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