Auburn coach Gus Malzahn speaks during a press conference on National Signing Day, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 in Auburn, Ala.

Auburn’s 2018 recruiting class was the first of the Gus Malzahn era that did not rank in the top 10. The sixth-year head coach has a feeling that won’t be the case again in 2019.

“We got great leadership with some of the commitments that are leading the charge,” Malzahn said last week. “I think our recruiting class is really setting up good. I think we’re in a great spot. I’ve said this before: I think we have a chance to have one of the best recruiting classes that we’ve had, at least since I’ve been here, and we’ve had some real good ones.”

The Tigers have a few anchors committed at positions of strength — specifically five-star linebacker Owen Pappoe, four-star wide receiver George Pickens and four-star quarterback Bo Nix — but still have plenty of room to grow what is right now a 12-man class at the start of the summer dead period.

Here’s a look at Auburn’s biggest positions of need during the 2019 recruiting cycle:

5) Running back

This won’t be a high-volume position for the Tigers in 2019; the hope instead is to make it high-impact. Running backs coach Tim Horton believes the team is going to take only one or two, but those one or two will be “some of the best ones in the country.” Auburn has seven running backs vying to replace Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway in 2017 — Kam Martin, Malik Miller, Devan Barrett, JaTarvious Whitlow, Asa Martin, Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner — and none are older than a junior. But it’s never too early to start planning for the future.

Names to watch: Four-star Noah Cain (Bradenton, Fla.), four-star Derrian Brown (Buford, Ga.), four-star Mark-Antony Richards (West Palm Beach, Fla.), three-star Tye Edwards (St. Augustine, Fla.).

4) Defensive back

Auburn is replacing three starters in the secondary this season, but it still has a veteran group at the back end of its defense, as expected starters Jamel Dean, Javaris Davis, Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson, as well as reserve John Broussard Jr., are juniors. There is youth behind those veterans in the form of sophomores Noah Igbinoghene, Jordyn Peters and Traivon Leonard, and freshmen Christian Tutt, Roger McCreary, Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood, but the Tigers need to continue to keep the cupboard full. They’re off to a solid start with four-star Frederica Academy (St. Simons Island, Ga.) teammates Jashawn Sheffield (a safety) and Jaylin Simpson (corner), as well as Minnesota transfer Kendarian Handy-Holly. Expect more to join them before this cycle is complete.

Names to watch: Five-star Andrew Booth (Lawrenceville, Ga.), four-star Adonis Otey (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), four-star Nick Cross (Hyattsville, Md.), three-star Nehemiah Pritchett (Jackson, Ala.)

3) Defensive line

There might be no position on Auburn’s roster right now that’s deeper than defensive line, but that could all change after this season. Defensive tackles Dontavius Russell and Andrew Williams are both seniors, and third-year players Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe are all talented enough to explore potential NFL futures. Sophomore bucks T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant should be back in 2019, as should defensive tackles Tyrone Truesdell and Alec Jackson and the members of this year’s signing class — buck Richard Jibunor, ends Caleb Johnson and Kayode Oladele, and tackles Daquan Newkirk and Coynis Miller — but Auburn will need to add to that group to offset any potential departures. Mississippi commits Jaren Handy (a four-star end) and Jamond Gordon (a three-star tackle) make for a good start.

Names to watch: Four-star Colby Wooden (Lawrenceville, Ga.), four-star Derick Hall (Gulfport, Miss.), four-star Charles Moore (Louisvile, Ga.), three-star LeDarrius Cox (Mobile, Ala.)

2) Tight end

Auburn hasn’t used the tight end much since the days of Philip Lutzenkirchen and C.J. Uzomah, but it appears Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have plans to change that. The Tigers didn’t sign any players at the position in 2018, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. They’ll go through this season with just senior Jalen Harris, junior Sal Cannella (who also plays wide receiver) and redshirt freshman John Samuel Shenker (who also plays H-back) at that spot, as well as maybe Joiner, who Auburn sees serving in a hybrid role. If three-star commits Tyler Fromm (ranked 17th nationally) and Luke Deal (20th) stay true, this will mark the Tigers’ first class with two high school tight end signees since they inked three in 2014.

Names to watch: N/A — Auburn is unlikely to take more than two tight ends.

1) Offensive line

This was always going to be the biggest priority of Auburn’s 2019 class, especially after the team brought in just two 2018 signees — three-stars Kameron Stutts and Jalil Irvin — to replace five departed seniors in Braden Smith, Austin Golson, Casey Dunn, Darius James and Wilson Bell. Position coach J.B. Grimes came back to the Plains with plans of taking at least five offensive linemen (he said he would prefer six), with the focus being on tackles. The offensive line Auburn will start this season won’t feature any seniors, but building behind that group for when it does leave is key. The Tigers have two offensive linemen committed so far — three-star Loganville, Ga., center Jakai Clark and three-star IMG Academy tackle Justin Osborne.

Names to watch: Five-star Clay Webb (Oxford, Ala), four-star Keiondre Jones (Hogansville, Ga.), four-star William Putnam (Tampa, Fla.)

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog. To reach him by email, click here.

Auburn beat writer

A Connecticut native and University of Maryland graduate, Josh has been covering Auburn University athletics for the Opelika-Auburn News since the summer of 2016.

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