Pinson Valley vs. Saraland, Class 6A State Championship

Pinson Valley's Bo Nix (10) signals to his teammates between plays in the first half. Pinson Valley vs Saraland on Friday, Dec. 7 in Auburn, Ala.

Owen Pappoe knew all along where he wanted to be.

Auburn is “home,” the five-star linebacker said, and that’s because of the people in Auburn — and the people he’s headed to Auburn with.

Pappoe is one of 16 new Auburn Tigers who signed letters of intent to join the program on Wednesday upon the opening of college football’s early signing period, and one of 14 players previously committed to the team who signed and sealed their deals that day at their first opportunity.

The early signing period closes today, to cap the second year the NCAA’s offered this early signing window. The sport’s regular signing period opens in February, as it has.

But Auburn’s put together the tiger’s share of its 25-man signing class already, with prized prospects like Pappoe at its center — and that count is part a credit to leaders of the class like him, bent on building something special together at Auburn.

The top-target Pappoe, the destiny-chasing quarterback Bo Nix, and vocal offensive lineman Keiondre Jones were leaders of the signing group, Gus Malzahn said, who set the tone to let others believe that big things are coming to the Plains — and that they’ll want to be part of it.

“Those guys held this thing together,” Malzahn said, “and allowed us to be to this point, to have a really, really good chance … to have one of the best classes we’ve had come through here, at least since I’ve been the head coach.”

Pappoe admitted Sunday, after the final official visit of his recruitment at Auburn, that his commitment had wavered down the stretch of Auburn’s disappointing 7-5 finish to the regular season, and in the wind of discussion in the city about the program’s future which Malzahn and athletics Allen Greene have both felt the need to address in the weeks since.

But after another meeting with the head coach in early December, Pappoe reaffirmed his commitment in a moment of relief, he said, because he knew Auburn is where he wanted to be. Wednesday, at his first chance, he made his paperwork official.

And he wasn’t alone.

Nix and Pappoe are the picture-perfect centerpieces of the class, on either side of the ball. Nix is a legacy player, the son of legendary Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix. He’s rated as five-star player by Rivals, and as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in his class by 247Sports. He capped his high school career in storybook fashion early this month, winning the Class 6A state title in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium — with his father on the familiar sideline, as his team’s head coach.

But even as Nix is the class’s natural front-man, taking snaps in football’s most glamorous position as quarterback, and sporting a last name beloved on the Plains, Pappoe could be just as much a leader on the other side of the ball, and as a talent, he may well be this class’s prized jewel.

Pappoe is a two-time five-star, earning the prestigious designation from both 247Sports and ESPN. He unanimously considered the No. 1 outside linebacker prospect in the country, named so by all three of Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN.

“It just feels right,” Pappoe said on Sunday. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It just feels right.

“Every time I come here, I’m happy all the time.”

With him helping to lead this class’s charge, he’ll be able to share that plenty new teammates he said he was excited to see sign Wednesday.

The letters of intent signed by Pappoe and Nix were joined by the letters of 12 other players who’ve earned four-star rankings from at least one of the national scouts, including a universal four-star in Jones who plays guard along the offensive line, plus two players unanimously touted to be three-star players.

“It’s very important,” Malzahn said, of having players Pappoe, Nix and Jones serve as vocal leaders as a signing class pulls together. “Very important. Great players want to play with other great players. Great players with character want to play with other (players) with character. So that’s what this group is. It attracts those type kids.

“That’s what I’m real excited about, with the leadership they showed to really get us to this point to have the type of signing class that we did today.”

Soon enough, now that the ink is dry and the paperwork is filed for those 16 players, it may well be only a matter of time before those youngster turn from being leaders of the recruiting class to leaders of the Tigers team, on Saturdays in Jordan-Hare.

For Pappoe, asked Sunday about signing day, the linebacker was ready to get started on doing just that.

“I can’t wait,” he said.

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