Auburn football isn't used to seeing "30" next to its name in the national recruiting rankings.
The Tigers signed the No. 7-ranked class in the country last year and haven't finished lower than 12th since 2009. Its lowest-ranked class of the past two decades came in 2004, when it also ranked 30th.
But that number needs context during a cycle that included a coaching change, staff overhaul and pandemic. While it is below Auburn's usual standard, it is also a sizable improvement over where the Tigers were eight weeks ago.
And, it could still rise. New coach Bryan Harsin expected Auburn to finish National Signing Day at six additions, but said he "anticipated that we're not done through this next 48 hours," as there are still several spots to fill.
"Recruiting never ends," he said. "That will be a process all the way through this semester, and it will continue on. And that's just part of where we are right now, and that's always going to be the case. I don't see that changing."
Auburn's recruiting class had dropped to 43rd nationally by the time Gus Malzahn was fired Dec. 13. As uncertainty on the Plains grew, four-star offensive tackle Caleb Johnson (Notre Dame) and running back Armoni Goodwin (LSU) decommitting. Four-star guard Jaeden Roberts (Alabama) and three-star safety Phillip O'Brien (Pitt) left the class after the early signing period began three days later.
Shepherded through that day by interim coach Kevin Steele and Malzahn's former staff, the Tigers signed 12 players, including two new commitments. (One of whom, Oklahoma transfer tight end Grant Calcaterra, has since left.) That group ranked 40th nationally and 12th in the SEC.
By the start of the last week of January, it ranked 48th.
Harsin (hired Dec. 22) and his staff (started Jan. 7 and finalized Jan. 27) didn't add any players to the 2021 class during that time. But, momentum began to pick up Saturday when Northwestern transfer edge-rusher Eku Leota became the first commitment of the Harsin era.
That sparked a run of five 2021 commitments in five days. Three-star offensive tackle Colby Smith pledged Sunday. Joko Willis, the No. 2-ranked junior college linebacker in the country, did the same Monday. On Wednesday, the Tigers flipped three-star safety Cayden Bridges, a former South Alabama commitment, and landed three-star safety Juwon Gaston, a standout at Carver High.
All five signed Wednesday, as did three-star Fort Myers, Fla., wide receiver Tar'varish Dawson, who committed in May and "never wavered" through Auburn's coaching change.
"This is a big moment for everybody, certainly the university, our football program and each one of these players and their families," Harsin said. "You think about the decision to make a commitment somewhere and to be a part of whatever program that they decide, these guys that chose Auburn University, they made that simply through relationships with our coaches – the connections they had with them – and then understanding there’s a fit for the culture and the type of people that we want to have in this program."
Of course, five three-stars and a transfer don't do much to close the gap with, say, Alabama, which signed 16 of the top 100 players in the country in the highest-rated class in the history of recruiting rankings. But, this is just the start for Harsin.
And, it isn't a bad one. The players Auburn signed Wednesday fit needs. Leota has more career sacks at the FBS level (6.5) than any player on the roster. Smith is the program's first high school offensive tackle signee since 2018. Dawson is an explosive athlete Texas A&M tried hard to poach.
Bridges and Gaston were both late risers who have sleeper potential. The last time the Tigers flipped a South Alabama commitment and signed a three-star defensive back from Montgomery, they ended up with Roger McCreary and Daniel Thomas, respectively.
"I’m very proud of our staff for putting in the work to get to where we are right now," Harsin said.
There's a good chance they're not done. The Tigers are considered the favorite to land three-star Philadelphia, Miss., running back Jarquez Hunter, who plans to wait until Friday to announce his decision. Landing him alone would jump them to 27th.
He won't be the only target. Four-star defensive end Dylan Brooks could come back on the market. He signed with Tennessee in December but asked for his release after coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired. Also, there are more players in the transfer portal than ever.
So while "30" certainly isn't a number Auburn isn't used to, it might also not be worth harping on too much — the start of Harsin's first season is still seven months away.
"I enjoy the standards of what we set for ourselves and making sure we uphold those standards every day," Harsin said. "When that does happen and you have a day where people got better and they saw that they got better and the program got better and it's all happening on that one particular day, there's a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm.
"That usually bleeds over to the next day and opportunities for that to happen again, and when you can get a little momentum that way, then you've got a chance."