- Greg Ostendorf, SEC reporter
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Gus Malzahn was not a happy camper after the Iron Bowl. He was frustrated with his team’s execution in the red zone, and he was not pleased with his defense, which allowed 55 points and 539 yards to rival Alabama. One of those was on him. The other he knew he needed to fix.
The day after the game, Malzahn let go of veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after two seasons on the Plains. Less than two weeks later, he hired ex-Florida coach Will Muschamp to replace Johnson. It was a home run hire for Auburn. In January, Travaris Robinson and Lance Thompson were added to the defensive staff, and the transformation was complete.
But this was a defense that allowed 30 or more points in seven of the last eight games. It needed more than a few coaching changes. It needed an infusion of young talent.
Fast forward to Wednesday, national signing day. Auburn finished with the No. 7 recruiting class per ESPN. Of the 27 signees, 13 came on the defensive side of the ball. That group included five players ranked in the ESPN 300 and was highlighted by five-star defensive end Byron Cowart.
"The future is very bright on that side of the football," Malzahn told ESPN after the class was complete.
It didn’t come without drama, though. Oh was there drama. The coaches rejoiced in the morning when Cowart announced he was choosing Auburn over Florida, but grew weary when the signed letter of intent never came through. Finally, it was Muschamp, the man most responsible for landing Cowart, who took the papers off the fax machine about 3 p.m. CT.
The coaches could celebrate once again, knowing they landed the nation's No. 1 player.
"You’re talking about the best player in the country," Malzahn said in his signing day news conference. "So yeah, he’ll have a chance to compete and have a chance to be on the field immediately with his skill set."
Cowart, along with fellow Floridian Jeffrey Holland, filled arguably the Tigers’ biggest need -- players who could get to the quarterback. Auburn finished No. 11 in the SEC this past season with 21 sacks, so developing a pass rush was Priority No. 1 for the new staff.
"We didn’t have Carl Lawson this year, and we had a couple other injuries, too, so I thought it was very important," Malzahn said. "That was one of our priorities -- get some guys so that we could rush the passer with just four guys and not have to blitz. We were able to do that two years ago, and we weren’t able to do that this past year. So that was definitely a focus, and we’re very excited about these guys that signed today."
The other need Auburn wanted to address on signing day was finding players who could cover. The Tigers struggled against the pass last season, and with two starters departing from the secondary, it was important to bring in a handful of new defensive backs.
That is where Robinson comes in. The new assistant coach, who was with Muschamp at Florida, proved instrumental to the 2015 class, specifically in the secondary. Auburn landed four defensive backs in the past three weeks, and Robinson had a large part to do with all four signing Wednesday. It was no surprise that all four hailed from the Sunshine State.
"Coach T-Rob went out -- he already had relationships with some guys -- and he felt very good about them coming in," Malzahn said.
Auburn also signed Richard McBryde and Darrell Williams, the top two linebackers in the state. Both bring versatility, and should help with the transition of defensive schemes now that Muschamp has arrived. That was another key for this class.
"Coach Muschamp, he’s handpicking these guys to fit his defense, and he’s very excited about that," Malzahn said. "We’ve got some guys that can help us immediately."
Wednesday was the next step to rebuilding a defense that let Auburn down time and time again last season. Nobody expects a top-10 group next season, but as Malzahn said, the future certainly looks bright on that side of the ball.
Landing pass-rusher Byron Cowart a big addition for Tigers.