NCF Nation: Stephen Roberts

AUBURN, Ala. -- The ink is dry, and Rashaan Evans is headed to Alabama. It was the surprise of signing day. The local product left his hometown to play for the enemy, and the people of Auburn were stunned to say the least. It’s a rivalry centered around momentum, and the Crimson Tide stole it back on Wednesday.

But just how close did Evans come to signing with the Tigers?

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn feels good about its recruiting class even with Rashaan Evans headed to Alabama.
“When I was up there at the podium, I was thinking ‘Man, maybe I should go to Auburn,’ but then I really thought about it and Alabama was the best place for me,” he said.

Apparently, Evans wasn’t the only one who thought he should go to Auburn or who thought he had already signed with the Tigers. The school’s athletic department put his bio on the website along with the other recruits who had signed that day. An embarrassing blunder no doubt, but it just goes to show how tight this battle really was.

Auburn signees Jakell Mitchell and Stephen Roberts made the short drive from their ceremony at Opelika (Ala.) High School to be at Evans’ announcement. Roberts said he knew the outcome already, but Mitchell was just as surprised as everybody else, surprised and disappointed.

“I was looking forward to getting him in the Auburn family,” Mitchell said. “But he made the best decision for him and his family. I hope he does great.”

No hard feelings.

It wasn’t easy for Evans’ parents either. Both went to Auburn for a period of time, and both still live in Auburn. His father, Alan Evans, says he will still root for the Tigers in every game except the Iron Bowl. That doesn’t change what happened, though. He still has to go around town with everybody fully aware that his son is playing for the school across the state.

“I know the Auburn people,” he said. “They’re the type of people that are going to take this with a grain of salt. They’ll move on, and there will be another Rashaan Evans. I think Rashaan has to move on, and I think Auburn has to move on. I think they’ll be OK.”

The folks in town probably haven’t moved on just yet, but the same can’t be said for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. According to Evans, Malzahn wasn’t aware of the decision until the Alabama hat came out of the bag, but he didn’t dwell on it. He and his staff had work to do.

“You recruit guys year-round, but we’re very excited about the guys we have,” Malzahn said, when asked about Evans. “We couldn’t be happier. We’ve got some outstanding guys that are going to help us win a whole lot of games, and the future is very bright.

“We focus on the guys that are here. We’ve got one of the best classes in college football, not only talent-wise but everything else that goes with it.”

Who can argue with that? When the smoke finally cleared, Auburn had signed 23 players including five early enrollees and finished with the No. 8 class on ESPN. It’s a class that included 17 four-stars and 12 recruits ranked in the ESPN 300, and it’s a class that features the No. 1 junior college player, the No. 2 pocket passer, and the No. 5 running back.

The loss of Evans might have left a sour taste on signing day if not for both Braden Smith and Andrew Williams, a pair of ESPN 300 prospects, choosing to sign with the Tigers.

“Sometimes you don’t get a guy that maybe you thought you were going to get or maybe felt like you were going to get, but then you get two that you got in on late,” athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “You just wish people well and know that we’re real excited about what we’ve got going on here.”

Sooner or later, that’s what Malzahn and the people of Auburn will do with Evans. They’ll wish him well until next November when he’s on the opposing sideline.
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Arkansas State Red Wolves
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
  • Three-time All-Sun Belt rusher Reggie Arnold is gone and finding his replacement will be their top priority. Derek Lawson, who was third on the team in rushing with 244 yards and two touchdowns, returns and he’ll be the incumbent through spring. But he’ll face competition from Sir Gregory Thornton and Frankie Jackson in the fall.
  • Ryan Aplin, who started three of the final four games last season, should be the leading quarterback this spring. Redshirt freshman Phillip Butterfield, however, will also challenge him for the spot. Butterfield was in the mix last fall camp before his season ended with a knee injury.
  • Arkansas State is currently without an offensive coordinator after Clay Helton, who came over from Memphis last month, left for USC last week. The Red Wolves still have a month before spring football starts, but trying to fill that void this late is going to make any transition to a new offense tough.
Florida Atlantic Owls
Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
  • The Owls lost seven starters from the offense, including four from the offensive line. The only player returning is center Ryan Wischnefski. Several players will be fighting for those spots, including Troy Niblack, Samuel McRoy, Jared Pizzuti and Max Karrick. The 2009 FAU offensive line was the best in the program’s short history. It helped FAU become the No. 2 passing offense in the Sun Belt.
  • FAU returns senior quarterback Jeff Van Camp, who started the second half of the season after Rusty Smith was injured. But six of the team’s top seven receivers are gone, including both tight ends Jason Harmon and Jamari Grant. Senior Lester Jean is the lone returning receiver. He had 501 yards and four touchdowns last season. The good thing is that FAU quarterbacks like to spread the ball around, so developing a new rapport with some receivers this spring shouldn’t be too difficult.
  • The team is counting on new defensive coordinator Kurt Van Valkenburgh and secondary coach Dick Hopkins to make the defense competitive. The Owls had one of the worst defenses in the country and one of the worst in program history. There will be a lot of competition in the secondary, especially since three walk-ons filled those starting roles.
Florida International Golden Panthers
Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 1
What to watch:
  • Senior Wayne Younger and junior transfer Wesley Carroll, who came from Mississippi State where he was an all-freshman selection in 2008, will compete for the starting quarterback job after Paul McCall graduated. Younger played in spot time last year and threw four interceptions and no touchdowns.
  • Darriet Perry should be the leader heading into the running back competition, but Perry struggled at times last year, mostly because of injuries. Kendall Berry, who played out of the Wildcat last year, and Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden also will compete for the starting role.
  • New offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield will be happy to see star receiver T.Y. Hilton back after he struggled with knee injuries most of last year. Hilton is one of the most dynamic receivers in the conference and having him healthy should give the offense confidence.

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