BY WIL CREWS
Hugh Freeze and the Auburn football staff earned commitments from two more transfer players this week, raising the team’s 2023 total to 12 overall.
The additions, Justin Rogers (defensive lineman) from Kentucky and Austin Keys (linebacker) from Ole Miss, pushed Auburn’s 2023 transfer class ranking to No. 2 overall in the country, according to On3.com.
With the first transfer portal window (Dec. 5 to Jan. 18) officially closing Wednesday, now is a good time to access the progress the Tigers have made over the past two months. Keep in mind the road to rebuilding the Tigers’ program is likely one that cannot be traversed in one off-season. However, we have seen the likes of USC vault themselves into college football relevancy after a coaching change and just one off-season of transfers. So, why can’t the Tigers replicate something of the same ilk?
The following are five transfers coming to The Plains in 2023 who can have an immediate impact on success.
1. BRIAN BATTIE (RUNNING BACK, SOUTH FLORIDA):
A four-star transfer prospect and rising junior, Battie just capped off a 2022 season in which he totaled 1,186 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 176 carries (6.7 yards per carry average) for the Bulls. Tank Bigsby’s departure from The Plains via the NFL draft means the Tigers have a clear need for a running back for the first time in a few seasons. Much like 2022, when Auburn employed a one-two rushing punch of Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter — with a little Demari Alston spliced in there as well — the 2023 iteration of Auburn football could employ a one-two punch of Hunter and either Alston or Battie. Even if Battie ends up as the third name on the depth chart, he proved last season he is capable of handling a large workload in the event of injuries to the running back room.
2. NICK MARDNER (RECEIVER, CINCINNATI):
It’s no secret that Auburn lacked difference makers on the outside of the offense in 2022. With the hire of Auburn-alum Marcus Davis as Freeze’s new wide receivers coach, the 6-foot-6-inch Nick Mardner comes to The Plains from Cincinnati. Mardner played under Davis in 2021 at Hawaii and had his best collegiate season there — posting a team-high 913 receiving yards and five touchdowns. While he failed to find a footing with the Bearcats in 2022, Mardner is a welcome addition — and prime red zone target — for the Tigers’ thin wide receiver room.
3. GUNNER BRITTON (OFFENSIVE TACKLE, WESTERN KENTUCKY): Coming to The Plains to exercise his final year of college football eligibility, Britton was a mainstay along the Western Kentucky offensive line four years running. During his time with the Hilltoppers, Britton earned a Conference USA All-Freshman Team nod in 2019 and protected quarterbacks like 2021 C-USA MVP and NCAA record-setting quarterback Bailey Zappe (now of the NFL’s New England Patriots) in one of the nation’s top passing attacks. Britton started every game for WKU last season, earning a PFF College grade of 80.7, including an 87 pass-blocking grade, which ranked No. 5 nationally among tackles who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps. Britton has experience as both a left and right tackle and projects to immediately pose as one of the Tigers’ best linemen.
4. RIVALDO FAIRWEATHER (TIGHT END, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL):
Freeze’s first hand-picked target to commit to the Tigers out of the transfer portal, Fairweather spent the previous three seasons with FIU. One of the top two tight ends in the transfer portal, Fairweather tallied 54 catches for 838 yards and five touchdowns in 2022. The 6-foot-5-inch playmaker will nicely replace the lost production of John Samuel-Shenker and provide immediate help to Auburn in both the passing and rushing game.
5. AUSTIN KEYS (LINEBACKER, OLE MISS):
LSU transfer linebacker Demario Tolen could have easily gotten the nod for the fifth and final spot. But the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound rising sophomore lacks experience and size as he registered just 10 tackles in 12 games for LSU last season. Contrastingly, Keys, a rising redshirt junior, played in all 13 of the Rebels’ games last season on his way to 39 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble. Listed at 6-foot-2-inches, 240-pounds, Keys has the size and experience to elevate the linebacker position for Auburn. The linebacker group at Auburn looks like the thinnest unit on the 2023 defense, and with the departure of four-year stalwart Owen Pappoe, Keys has a legitimate opportunity to step directly into an impact role for the Tigers this season.
The Tigers will have one more opportunity to add talent to its 2023 roster when the transfer portal’s second window opens for a 15-day period this spring (May 1 to 15).