Despite changes, Auburn football's Hugh Freeze won't admit he's 'closed the gap' just yet
AUBURN — With the exception of what Deion Sanders is doing at Colorado, only a handful of teams have been more active in the transfer portal this offseason than Auburn football.
From the Big Ten to the Sun Belt, the Tigers have added 18 transfers since coach Hugh Freeze was hired in November, with the most notable addition being former Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne, who committed and signed to Auburn on May 5.
Thorne, who took a visit to the Plains before pledging to play for Freeze in 2023, is already on campus.
"It's vital that he gets in," Freeze said at an AMBUSH event in LaGrange, Georgia, on Wednesday. "Man, he didn't wait. He's already in there watching film on his own and learning stuff. He's anxious to get with the team and start working out."
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But Thorne's eagerness to get to work, coupled with the other newcomers from the portal, isn't enough to convince Freeze the Tigers are up to snuff with the rest of the conference, particularly their next-door neighbors.
Auburn is, obviously, sandwiched between arguably the two top programs in the sport in back-to-back national champion Georgia and perennial contender Alabama. While the Tigers have toiled, their closest counterparts have reached new heights.
"I know there's a lot of excitement right now with what we've done recruiting," Freeze said. "And I'm thrilled about that. I'm excited. But also, I think it's too early to tell how much we've closed the gap on the ones that we have to close the gap on. The one thing I know is that I feel confident in saying that we've improved our roster. How much? I don't think we'll know until we play some games."
Of the 18 players the Tigers have landed from the portal, 10 are coming from schools outside the Power Five, recently highlighted by North Texas transfers wide receiver Jyaire Shorter and linebacker Larry Nixon III. Both joined the Mean Green in the Class of 2018 and had career-best seasons in 2022.
The question now becomes: How well will those players coming from a perceived lower level of competition fare in the SEC?
"I don't really care where they come from," Freeze said. "Here's my question: Do they improve our roster? When I'm watching the film, that's the question for me. I don't care where they played at. Do they improve our roster currently? And if we have a spot and they improve our roster, then we need to go on it."
The mass arrival of newcomers − Auburn also is set to bring in 19 recruits in the Class of 2023 and two players from junior college − opens the door for some competition. Freeze believes Nixon could push for a starting job, and some of the transfers that went through spring practice with the Tigers already seem to be carving out roles in the starting lineup.
Robby Ashford, who started nine games at quarterback for Auburn in 2022, is handling the addition of Thorne well, according to Freeze.
"I don't know of any that I saw that were real signs of, 'Hey, I'm being done wrong.' That's just the wrong mentality," Freeze said. "That's not real in this league, or in any league, to be candid. We coaches want to win, also. We want to build men, I hope that doesn't get lost in this craziness of the new college football world, but it's still about competition."
With the transfer portal closed until December (except for graduate transfers), Freeze doesn't see much more movement for the Tigers, aside from what they already have in motion.
"We've got one more (portal target) coming in (for a visit) Friday and Saturday," Freeze said. "We've got one more coming in. We had one today that just left. I hope that's about it. But I wouldn't say that it is, because who knows? ...
"I think we're close to being at the end."
Richard Silva is the Auburn athletics beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @rich_silva18.