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January 30, 2011

Through a Freshman's Eyes

If limited to a single personality trait you would want in a Mike linebacker position on defense, give me decisiveness, a key ingredient of leadership. Uncertainty in rapidly seeing the offensive deployment, getting the call, lining up the defense, and making assignments usually results in the opponent's band playing.

Auburn linebacker Jake Holland displayed this important quality at the earliest point in becoming an Auburn Tiger, breaking the mold of today's usual late January or national signing day commitments with the requisite hoopla and press conferences. Decisiveness like one, and only one, official recruiting visit - to Auburn University - a rarity in today's recruiting game.

Holland's actual "official" visit would not come until January, 2010, almost a year after his initial Auburn offer in February, 2009. True to his personal value of loyalty instilled by father, Jeff, Holland would not take another unofficial or official visit to another school. Decisive Auburn man, indeed.

It seems such a distant day now in the wake of the recent 14-0 national championship season, but April, 2009 was in fact an important beginning for both the Auburn Tigers and for Holland.

In spring, 2009, Coach Gene Chizik was busy preparing for his inaugural season as head coach, and perhaps understandably, the media skeptics were abundant. Excitement was building among Auburn fans about the coaching staff assembled, and the impressive closing in recruiting for a staff who took on the challenge so late in the process, landing touted recruits DeAngelo Benton, Emory Blake, Phillip Lutzenkirchen, and Tyrick Rollison among others and re-signing Onterrio McCalebb out of Hargrave Military Academy.

Yet the excitement was unavoidably tempered by the reality of no on the field results to show as yet, opening the door to relentless scorn and ridicule from the enemies of the Auburn football program.

Insiders who knew Coach Chizik and the staff he assembled were buoyed with hope, even bravado, especially after seeing the staff go into LSU's back yard to land a top wide receiver. At a minimum, this would be a staff of fearless recruiters who openly professed they would recruit any kid, anywhere if he was right for the program. If they could coach, the winning would surely follow.

The leadership and organization was in place, and the undercurrent was positive among a fan base hungry for change and a "take no prisoners" recruiting attitude. Innovation soon came to the fore with Tiger Prowl grabbing not merely local but national attention.

But on the recruiting front, what was desperately needed was momentum on the in-state front. Coming off of a 12-0 regular season in 2008, the archrival Tide program was dominating the early season attention, and rightly so as it would turn out in 2009.

That crucial early recruiting momentum would come from a somewhat improbable recruit, Birmingham, AL (Pelham) linebacker Jake Holland. Improbable only because Holland grew up cheering for the Tide, not because he does not fit the ideal mold of what Auburn faithful understand by the phrase, "Auburn man".

"Throughout the recruiting process my junior year," recalls Holland, "I enjoyed visiting the different colleges, but I grew tired of the long grind. It became grueling with the road trips my Dad and I would make for visits, and especially with the frequent interviews with media and recruiting sites. Where many recruits love the process, I'm just a country boy and didn't enjoy the spotlight as much."

But to paraphrase an old hunting axiom, a great football recruitment does not have to be a long recruitment.

As Jake and his father visited Auburn and got to know the coaching staff, they would quickly experience that inexplicable quality and environment that is hardly new to all who bleed orange and blue.

"My Dad and I had visited a lot of campuses throughout my junior season at Pelham, so I knew a lot about what different programs offered. I've always played in a 4-3 defense, so Auburn was ideal on that score, but more importantly, I just fell in love with the coaches and the whole environment. It felt right. Everything fit for me."

Coach Lolley had coached Jake's Dad, Jeff, at Demopolis years before, and the frequent conversations with Coach Thigpen had built a very solid, comfortable relationship. "A lot of the time, when Coach Thigpen would call," observes Holland, "it had nothing to do with football or my commitment. We would talk about my family, how things were going at school."

On April 4th, 2009, Jake would pull the trigger and make a commitment that was so decisive in today's recruiting environment it would probably be considered "bad for business" to recruiting media services, though welcomed by coaching staffs.

Sometimes there is a price to pay for committing early, as it is interesting to note that when Holland committed so early, it clearly hurt his recruiting ratings with some services because he was no longer a "commodity". As his senior season developed, Holland was catching attention with dominant play (do not ask me to recap the Pelham game versus my high school team, Vestavia Hills, which Holland just about singlehandedly won with a ridiculous 27 tackles) despite the Pelham defense lacking a dominant defensive front such as Hoover's which tends to pad the tackling statistics of a linebacker.

A little known fact as Holland's senior season wore on is that he boasted over 25 major college offers. Though it took longer than his player results warranted, Holland would finally be awarded a 4-star rating by Rivals.com.

In late February, 2009, Coach Phillip Lolley called Jake Holland to offer a full scholarship to play at Auburn. Coach Tommy Thigpen became Holland's lead recruiter immediately thereafter and in a fairly typical twist of recruiting humor was initially unaware the offer had been extended.

Coach Thigpen recruited Holland hard for over a month. On a sunny and warm April Thursday, Jake and his father decided to drive down to spring practice in early April. Once again, the Auburn atmosphere, and the realness of the coaching staff just felt like home to both father and son.

The elder Holland recalls with a chuckle a memorable return drive to Birmingham that day. "Jake was tired from a long week,", said Jeff, "and drifted off to sleep in the car. We had arranged a visit to Miss State and Ole Miss for the following weekend. Somewhere around Montgomery, Jake awoke from his nap and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Dad, I want you to call and cancel those other visits'."

Like a wise father, protecting against a premature decision, Jeff asked his son, "Why?" Jake replied bluntly, "I'm done. I'm going to Auburn".

Hold on here. No presser at the high school with 6 college team caps? No customary commitment, decommitment, and recommitment?

Jeff continued, "Jake then went back to sleep. We got home late and both went to bed. The next day, Jake went to school and I headed to work. When I arrived home from work Jake was sitting on the couch watching TV. I asked him when he wanted to call Coach Chizik with the good news."

He replied, "Shoot dad, I already talked to him over an hour ago. I told him I was coming and he was all excited! From that point on, that was the end of Jake's recruitment. The two of us never talked about it again, as Jake was raised to honor his word."

For close followers of Tiger recruiting, the splash was memorable as the news broke, as in recent years such early commitments were unusual. It was only April, but the Auburn staff had made an important step and momentum toward the 2010 signing class.

"Auburn would be my only official visit, and once I committed I stuck," recalls Holland. "I thanked other schools for what they did for me but told them my commitment was firm."

What few fully grasped at the time was that in Jake Holland, the Tigers had landed a recruiter extraordinaire who along with additional class of 2010 recruits would fuel excitement and cement relationships that would mushroom ultimately to a top 5 Rivals.com class.

I loved Auburn and the whole environment so much that I immediately became a recruiter for Auburn. And this really started even before I committed. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to go there. Very quickly, the other 2010 class recruits formed a tight bond, and we all stayed in constant communication."

Of equal importance, Jeff and his wife Terri (a lifelong Auburn girl) provided spirit and warmth to the 2010 class recruits and their families as the 2009 season progressed, which became a huge asset.

On the first ever "Big Cat Weekend" on the Plains, Jeff Holland was moved to offer an impromptu, spontaneous speech to a parents only gathering. He shared with the recruits' families the Holland family story of why Jake committed to Auburn, how much it meant to the family, and why Jeff proudly considered himself an "Auburn man" now.

His words from the heart resonated with the families, and friendships were formed that remain strong today.

Very rapidly in the 2010 class recruitment season - Chizik's first full recruiting cycle - the "F word" was the rage in Auburn recruits' vernacular. "Family", that is. It became comical to hear copycat rival recruiters drop the word "family" as they described their program and college culture to blue chippers. But as Holland experienced, this quality is singularly unique to Auburn University.

Family was Coach Chizik and the staff visiting Shon Coleman upon learning of his serious diagnosis, and football not even coming up in conversation. Family was also trusting some of the 2010 class recruits to visit whatever colleges they wish, and allowing them to set the terms for that. If it leads to losing a recruit or two, maybe he wasn't an Auburn man in the first place.

Family was Louisiana top recruit Trovon Reed connecting with a unique sense of family at Auburn - not merely the football program - despite his friend Lache Seastrunk signing elsewhere, and despite enormous (and a borderline violation) pressure from his high school coach to sign with LSU.

And obviously, it has always meant hearing an entire student body use the term Auburn Family, and it have a Coca-Cola brand realness about it.

"You don't want to go to a college where you'll be just a number on the field", says Holland. "Every program uses the word "family", but at Auburn there really is a sense of family. I've never seen a team as close as our 2010 team. You are sometimes going to have little issues that arise from competition for playing time, but our team was able to quickly move past it and stay focused on just winning."

Holland's arrival to the Auburn campus was like any freshman's, and he offers sage advice to any incoming freshman. "The most important thing I can tell any recruit," says Holland, "is that the first thing you need to do is get in the film room. The size of the playbook, compared to high school, is overwhelming, and was by far the biggest adjustment for me."

Auburn assistant Travis Williams would invest countless hours orienting Holland and other freshmen to the defensive system in a film room that would become very familiar.

"Any time I had a break between classes," said Holland, "I was in the film room with Travis learning all I could as fast as I could."

The season exploded out of the gate in September, and after sweeping the Palmetto state in September with close wins, the hope and promise of a magical season became realistic. "Almost every practice," said Holland, "Coach Trooper would yell, 'What'd we come here to win?', and we'd respond, "Championships"!

Holland recalls the breakthrough of belief and confidence for the team coming in the score-fest against Arkansas. Despite yielding too many points, the defense rose up with big plays late in the game. They were coming of age, and the winning continued.

In the four weeks leading up to the historic BCS National Championship game, Holland was asked to prepare for a sizeable task against the Oregon Ducks, a team touted for pacing and wearing out defenses. The true freshman was being readied to take a significant number of snaps at the Mike linebacker position, spelling senior starter Josh Bynes. The defensive plan was to shut down the Ducks with the Tigers' aggressive, fast front, but there had to be a contingency plan if the game became a track meet with 85-90 offensive snaps for the Ducks.

Both Coach Roof and starter Josh Bynes told Holland to prepare to play 15-20 snaps in the game if Oregon performed to their usual production.

In the third quarter, with the game tight, the true freshman was inserted in a key 3rd and long, with the Ducks driving into Auburn territory. Ted Roof signaled in a ballsy blitz to the true freshmen linebacker, confident Holland could handle it.

Oregon lined up quickly, but Holland correctly checked into the zone blitz, fired up the middle and forced a hurried throw which was incomplete. This was not "just one" play. In a game which proved to be a low scoring struggle, any one explosive play had the potential to determine the outcome.

To the credit of Ted Roof and the Auburn defensive staff, the defensive plan worked brilliantly, holding the heralded Quack Attack to a paltry 19 points, including a safety and a "one for the ages" goal line stand after a first and goal at the Auburn two yard line.

Even today as the Auburn Family collectively laments the graduation and departures for NFL glory of this remarkable group of seniors, like all college football fans, we eagerly await the emergence of the coming group of champions. Holland will be among a group of relatively young, but extremely talented players on the 2011 Auburn roster. They are youthful, but the quality of experience gained from an unblemished, championship season is invaluable.

These will not be ordinary true sophomores, because they have seen up close and personal how to win in the SEC. The recruits even spoke openly about coming to Auburn to win a championship, a quote which brought a wry smile then, but brings no laughs today. And many, like Holland, contributed directly on the field to the championship providing quality depth in key game moments.

And so the torch is passed from the beloved Auburn championship veterans to their talented proteges, even as we reach the 5-day countdown to 2011 National Signing Day. A second consecutive super-talented signing class is assured for the Tigers, with a potential surprise or two in the works on signing day.

As the Tigers work to sustain the greatness achieved, fans can look back on a seemingly simple early recruitment in April, 2009, and smile. The Auburn book on Jake Holland's football career remains to be written, but there is a permanent place set at the Auburn Family table for any young man who so quickly "gets it" about the Loveliest Village.


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