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September 18, 2013

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Doug Dean, better known as "Eagle5" inside The Bunker, is a close observer of Auburn and Southeastern Conference football. AuburnSports.com is happy to leave the light on for Doug to drop in when the AU spirit moves him to contribute.

AUBURN | When Gus Malzahn was hired as Auburn head coach in the wake of the historically miserable 2012 campaign, he was acutely aware that a hurry up, no fumble system in making smart coaching staff hires was in order. National Signing Day was just weeks away and it was far more important to assemble a winning, cohesive staff than to placate recruits with Auburn tattoos.

The acumen displayed by Malzahn in assembling his initial staff would turn the heads of even those few skeptics who welcomed his hiring with a wait-and-see posture.

He methodically assembled a staff that is a bold concoction of grizzled SEC veterans, exuberant, innovative youngsters and superb recruiters who are equally capable at developing talent. The only setback was hardly a fumble, as NFL special teams guru Rich Bisaccia, who accepted the running backs / special teams spot on Malzahn's staff, reneged when the NFL's Dallas Cowboys came calling.

It would be tough for most NFL staffers to turn down an offer to coach in Jerry's World, let alone for most any college gig below the coordinator level.

Gus Malzahn was turning heads and was in hurry-up mode in winning over the splintered Auburn fan base, which in January was anything but a small task.

On a different level, the brilliance in Malzahn's hiring strategy is perhaps best evidenced in two steals from Deep South rivals that electrified the Auburn fan base -- Rodney Garner and Dameyune Craig. Both coaches were content in their positions at Georgia and Florida State, respectively, but Malzahn's credibility and persistence would haul two of Auburn's favorite sons home at a time of great urgency.

Malzahn knows well that there is risk in a program hiring a former player, particularly at the top position and at times even at the staff level. Mike Shula's tenure at Alabama remains a grim reminder of how it can prolong failure if you hire the wrong "favorite son". Yet Garner and Craig met the vital criteria of being highly competent coaches while being entirely committed to Malzahn's vision to return the Tigers to championship form.

Garner's career both at Auburn and Georgia has been well documented -- and easily followed. He is a game-changer on many fronts and is indeed building a defensive front that is starting to look worthy of the blue jersey after just three games.

Most Auburn fans know Dameyune Craig as the elusive Auburn quarterback with a rifle arm (1994-1997), and more recently as a celebrated recruiter of blue-chip talent. Indeed, Craig was named the 2012 Recruiter of the Year by several on-line recruiting services, and was Rivals.com's ACC Recruiter of the Year. In his short time back at Auburn, Craig already has made waves in the talent-rich Mobile recruiting area, where doors open to him as if family.

With apologies to the ESPN show title on the greatest running back of all time, you don't know Dameyune -- well, not entirely. A reintroduction seems appropriate considering his new role on the Plains. There are more than a few layers to Dameyune Craig the man -- and to "Coach Craig". His character and drive will impact results far past National Signing Day and he embodies the qualities which define what we mean by Auburn man.

THE LONG ROAD TO AUBURN

January 3, 2013, was a special day for Dameyune, wife Neke, and their sons, Devin and Drake. Thanks to Malzahn's successful second run at Craig, they chose to make a new start in Auburn. "It was crazy," recalls Craig. "We had just won big in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day. I was in Tallahassee when we got the contract all worked out for me to come to Auburn. I was on the plane that morning, and the next day I was on the recruiting trail for my alma mater. I was in a lobby in my Auburn colors, with FSU coaches there, and there we were recruiting against each other."

Craig remains grateful to FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, despite his glee to be back on the Plains helping Malzahn return the Tigers to glory days. "Coach Fisher developed me into the man I am," said Craig, "first by taking a chance on me out of high school to play quarterback when some schools wanted me to play another position, and secondly with a great coaching opportunity at a big time Division I program."

At your next Auburn tailgate party, here's a Tiger trivia question that will win you a friendly wager: At what position did Dameyune Craig begin his football career at Blount High School? If you guessed offensive line, then chances are you were a water boy on the Blount High team in the early 1990s.

"When I started the season as a freshman," chuckled Craig, "Coach (Ben) Harris had me playing O-line. He told me, 'When you go find me some other players, I'll move you to another position'. I had to start recruiting at a young age, so I could move to the position I wanted to play."

If you want a window into what drives Craig competitively, don't look at the big wins he's been part of from an early age. "For me," Craig said, "it's never the good ones. It's the bad ones that stick in my mind. When I was a freshman at Blount, I finally got to start the last game of what had been a bad season against LeFlore. We lost that game 16-0, and it lit a fire under me. I swore to myself ... never again. I've won a lot of games as a player and a coach, but the ones that got away are what sticks in my mind."

While Craig's decision to sign with Auburn in 1993 wasn't altogether surprising -- he grew up an Auburn fan -- he had to work and wait for the dream offer after fracturing his arm the third game of his junior season at Blount. The turning point in his recruitment would come in a big game against Valley High his senior season.

"Coach Harris told me that Coach Joe Whitt was coming down to watch me," recalls Craig, "and if I had a good game, Auburn was going to offer me. But the pressure in that game came from knowing that if we won, we would play in the state championship."

In the second half alone, Craig threw for three touchdowns and ran for more than 100 yards to lead Blount to a 28-27 win (Yes, you read that score correctly). After the game, Coach Whitt found Coach Harris, and told him, "He can definitely play quarterback." Fisher, then serving as Auburn's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, later made it clear to Craig that he wanted him at Auburn. The plan? Play quarterback.

Just as Craig's path from Blount High to Auburn was not as linear as you perhaps imagined, neither was Craig's winding path through the college coaching ranks back to Auburn. Therein lies the value -- Craig has been mentored in diverse settings and matured a style that is a composite of proven leaders.

BREAKING IT DOWN

Sixteen years later, Craig still enjoys a rabid following of Auburn fans who relish the explosive plays that always seemed to involve his arm or swift feet. Having enjoyed two such huge moments in person, I had to ask Craig to take us inside the huddle and the moment.

Death Valley, September 20, 1997. Auburn at LSU: "The previous two years, we had only scored one touchdown against LSU," recalls Craig. "In 1996, I was knocked out of the game with a concussion and ACL sprain. So in '97, the LSU game week was a tough week from the coaches, as they were determined we would win in Baton Rouge. I remember in the meeting room before the game, Takeo (Spikes) and myself asked the coaches to leave. Takeo and I stood up and had a talk with the team. We talked about expectations, how we wanted to start the game off fast."

And the seemingly six-quarter game, in suffocating Red Stick humidity, led inevitably to The Drive, with less than three minutes remaining.

"When we got the ball back with under three minutes for the game-winning drive, we were down by four, 28-24," he said. "I didn't think about the specific situation or moment; I thought about how we had prepared in the winter. I was about to cramp up. I was hot and tired. I got in the huddle and I told the guys that if we can make it through the bubble workouts (winter workouts in the legendary indoor "bubble"), we can make it through anything. We went right down the field and stuck it in the end zone, executing the plays despite ridiculous crowd noise, and we won 31-28."

Both Craig and Garner endured the crucible of "the bubble", a somber badge of honor on old-school physical and mental toughness on the Plains. "I had my worst injuries in spring practice at Auburn," recalls Craig. "I had a cracked sternum, tore my rotator cuff, and cracked my wrist. Quarterbacks were live all spring in those days."

It should encourage any Auburn fan to know that Malzahn has returned former "bubble survivors" to his staff on both sides of the ball, which can only help eradicate for good the softness that marked 2012.

Jordan-Hare Stadium, November 22, 1997. Auburn vs. Alabama: Most will recall that as Tiger Walk took place for the 1997 Iron Bowl, word was breaking that the Razorbacks, a 4-win team, had upset Mississippi State 17-7. The Hogs' win set up the perfect scenario for Auburn -- go out and beat a 4-6 Mike Dubose Tide team in Jordan-Hare and you're headed to Atlanta. It would prove to be a tough task, but it set up last minute heroics by No. 16.

"When Coach (Terry) Bowden called that punt with so little time left, I wasn't happy," remembers Craig. "If I have ever felt the pressure to win the game myself, it was that one. I didn't want to be the first quarterback to lose to Alabama in Jordan-Hare. We needed to win this game for Auburn, especially with Bama 4-6 at the time."

Yet as fans have etched in their memory, Martavious Houston would deliver Craig a second and final opportunity to seal the deal, jarring a swing pass free from Ed Scissum that Quentin Reese corralled to end the threat.

I maintain that Bruce Arians' call remains the single worst offensive play call under the circumstances in Iron Bowl history. Yet ever the classy man, Craig differs. "Well, if he makes it," notes Craig, "the game is over."

"I remember the play before Jarrett's kick to win it," recalls Craig. "We called a rollout left, isolating half the field. We wanted to get the ball on the left hash for Jarrett Holmes' kick. What makes that pass play remarkable to me is that you've got a walk-on receiver, Hicks Poor, going against a first-round pick defensive back, Fernando Bryant. The play was designed to isolate half the field and I had to thread the needle tight to Hicks Poor."

Great coaching about how to deal with pressurized moments made all the difference for Craig.

"In that moment," said Craig, "I remembered Jimbo coaching me that you get in a pressure situation; you revert back to your fundamentals. You don't get caught up in how big the moment is. At the snap, I thought about getting the ball up, pushing it back, and hitting Hicks on the outside numbers, and throwing it through him. It hit Hicks on the right shoulder and Fernando had no way to break on the ball, so just knocked him out of bounds. Everything had to be perfect, and my preparation was what helped me execute it. I consider it one of the best plays I made my whole college career. So as a coach, I always tell my players about that play -- and to deal with pressure by reverting to your fundamentals."

COMING FULL CIRCLE

Now back in Auburn, Craig is gleeful to be part of the system that offensive genius Gus Malzahn deployed to propel the Tigers to a 2010 national championship. "The HUNH is a fun offense, it's exciting," said Craig. "I'm also really enjoying working with Rhett Lashlee. Rhett is a very intelligent guy, has a lot of knowledge of this offense, and has been more than willing to share the system. We have a great relationship, and I'm learning more every day. The confidence of the entire team is growing, and the wide receivers have a spring in their step and everybody's feeling good right now."

With Auburn wide receiver production having dropped off sharply in 2012, Craig's importance in turning that around is obvious. That includes selling the wide receivers on taking pride as blockers given Auburn's potent rushing attack with a superb three-back rotation.

"Blocking is just a huge part of this offense for the receivers," says Craig. "When you watch our big run plays, they're created by receivers blocking downfield. The wide receiver has to have a physical presence at the point of attack. That's a crucial part of Coach Malzahn's offense and my guys have bought into that."

Coaches who stay in the game long enough, particularly in the Deep South, will have their share of high profile players who end up making it to the NFL. Craig has had the good fortune of coaching and developing two first round draft picks, including E. J. Manuel. "E.J. and I had a great relationship," said Craig, "and he was an inspiring kid, playing with broken bones, and dealing with a Mom who had breast cancer."

He also beamed with pride recently to see one of his final FSU recruits, Jameis Winston, electrify fans with a near perfect (25 of 27 for 356 yards and five touchdowns) opening performance against Pittsburgh. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime talent," said Craig, "with as much talent at baseball as he has at quarterback. He has been first class, and wished me well at Auburn."

But ask Coach Craig about the player he coached that influenced him most, and he will respond proudly about a Division II quarterback who, but for Coach Craig, almost never got to display his talent.

"I told my wife very recently," said Craig, "that the kid who established my career as a coach was Jacary Atkinson at Tuskegee. It was my first coaching job, at a Division II school. When I got there, there was a kid named Kevin Huff playing QB who had some success and they had put in some pro-style offense. Jacary was playing receiver and the coaches planned to keep him there."

Craig will fight for a player if he sees the talent, which will only endear him to recruits. "I saw that though Jacary's talent was raw, he had great ability as a quarterback. I fought for him to get a shot at quarterback and told the coaches that he would be the best quarterback to ever play at Tuskegee. He won his first 19 games, broke the single season passing record, and had a crazy 68-percent completion percentage. But the key is that it helped me as a coach, because I had to develop the vision to see a kid's potential and get it out of him."

I asked Craig to share the magic behind his tremendous recruiting success, without giving away trade secrets. His self-effacing response rings true of what you would like and expect of an Auburn man.

"I've always felt that it's not about me -- it's about selling the program," said Craig. "I've been places like Tuskegee where there are actually a lot of things that are very appealing, and that people don't know about -- the education, the history, the winning tradition they've had at that level. When I was at South Alabama, I could sell the opportunity to make history by going to Division I for the first time. And at Florida State, they were coming off a 7-win season, but there was a lot of winning history to sell and the opportunity to return them to the highest level."

But now? Now, surely the man you don't know as well as you thought simply loves the product he has to sell?

"Without question, Auburn truly does sell itself," says Craig. "And I have one enormous advantage in selling Auburn to any young man. I can always say if it was good enough for me, it will be good enough for you. I played here, I'm coaching here. It's about life after football and Auburn is a tremendous place to prepare for life. None better."

After such a memorable chat with Coach Craig, on serious football topics, it seemed only appropriate to draw a laugh from him to close.

"Dameyune," I asked, "I'm disappointed. I was just certain you were going to credit your recruiting success to being the best damn dresser on the campus. And I'm going to remind Dee Ford of that since he claims to have more fashion sense than you."

After recovering from a belly laugh, Craig was not to be outdone. "Yeah, but Dee will be a great dresser next year when he's making all that money!"

Now you know Dameyune the man, and Coach Craig the leader, perhaps a little better.

Welcome back, Coach!



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