Travis Williams hugged his guys.
As the Tigers ran over the field in victory in postgame pandemonium, as the fans leapt for joy in the stands and ESPN chased down its new TV darling at quarterback, Williams wrapped his arm around his linebackers.
All that work was starting to pay off.
And somewhere in his moment with his new linebackers who made their big-stage debut last Saturday night in a 27-21 victory, he probably reminded them: They’re just getting started.
K.J. Britt took his place as starter at middle linebacker, with five-star freshman prodigy Owen Pappoe making his anticipated debut in orange and blue right next to him outside — while Chandler Wooten worked with Britt in the middle and Zakoby McClain worked outside with Pappoe, all making their impact in the rotation just as planned by Williams, the Tigers’ linebackers coach and former on-field Auburn great himself.
It was Britt and Wooten that Williams was hugging on the field postgame in AT&T Stadium, in a photo he shared on his Twitter page.
“You know, what’s very pleasing to watch is just how close they are,” Williams said during the preseason, excited to see that new group go. “They’re a really, really close group.
“It’s like a big brotherhood.”
Auburn’s replacing longtime standout Deshaun Davis there in the center of that defense this season, after he graduated last season along with fellow veteran linebackers Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson.
The cast charged with doing that is led by Britt and Wooten, two leaders inside that Travis Williams has pit against each other in competition, saying he wants two ‘quarterbacks of the defense’ — something he picked up in his own playing days at Auburn playing in a stacked linebacker group up until his senior season in 2005.
Outside and next to them in Pappoe, the touted and talked-about prospect from Georgia, and the sophomore McClain flexing his own talent against him.
Saturday night, Britt and Pappoe were out for the game’s first play, and Wooten and McClain rotated in.
Britt finished with seven tackles, the team’s second most, to go along with a quarterback hurry, 1.5 tackles for loss and a half-credit on a sack.
Pappoe piled up five tackles and was credited with a pass breakup.
McClain got half-credit for a sack as well and finished with four total tackles while Wooten logged two total.
“I had a good start,” Britt said Sunday, after the win. “I’m not satisfied. Not satisfied. I had too many mental errors. I’ve got to limit my mental errors. It’s little stuff I could work on.
“As a group, I think we played well. But we’ve still got to keep chopping wood.”
Auburn returns a defense loaded with experienced players across most position groups. The only place an opposing coach might think he’s found a weakness is with those linebackers. On the back end, Auburn returns two senior starters at the safety positions and a set of experienced corners.
Up front, Auburn boasts its fearsome front four, led by All-SEC Derrick Brown and his fellow NFL Draft prospects Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe.
Brown Sunday after studying film that Oregon’s head coach Mario Cristobal focused on those defensive linemen in his schemes, daring those linebackers to make plays against the Ducks.
Those linebackers did just that.
“I think their game plan was pretty good,” Brown said. “Coach Cristobal said after the game they wanted to stay on the down linemen, and that’s exactly what they did.
“They put our linebackers in a position to have to make a play. We had guys flying around to the ball, and they were making plays all night.”