What Kevin Steele and Travis Williams will do this season is a bit of a rarity in college football.
Both are going into their third years in their respective positions; the former as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, the latter as its linebackers coach. And for the third consecutive season, they’ll start essentially the same group in the middle of the Tigers’ defense.
Tre’ Williams is gone, but the rest of the Tigers’ leaders at linebacker remain as they were when they first started in 2016.
“That in itself is really odd,” Steele said. “These guys have been doing it a long time.”
Here’s what we know and don’t know about a veteran-laden Auburn linebacking corps:
Deshaun Davis (Sr.), Darrell Williams (Sr.), Montavious Atkinson (Sr.), Richard McBryde (Jr.), K.J. Britt (So.), Chandler Wooten (So.), Zakoby McClain (Fr.), Michael Harris (Fr.), Josh Marsh (Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that Auburn has three of four “starters” back at a position where it usually has only two players on the field at a time. That’s a luxury most coaches don’t have, but for Steele and Travis Williams, it has almost become par for the course.
Davis, Darrell Williams and Atkinson have combined to make 46 starts at linebackers over the past two seasons. Davis and Williams both finished top-three in tackles on last year’s defense, with the former making a team-high 82 and the latter ranking third with 57. Atkinson recorded 43. Combined, the trio totaled 12 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Losing Tre’ Williams, the leadership he provided and the 50 tackles he recorded last season despite spending much of the year playing through a shoulder injury leaves a void, but it’s one that Davis, Darrell Williams and Atkinson seem more than capable of filling. Travis Williams feels comfortable starting all three of them in any combination depending on matchups and what defense Auburn has on the field.
Those three linebackers aren’t as talked about as much as their counterparts on an elite defensive line, but they have been as big a part of Auburn holding opponents to fewer than 19 points per game in each of the past two seasons as any player on that side of the ball.
“We’re a pretty solid group just coming back with a lot of guys coming back,” Darrell Williams said. “Losing Tre’ Williams, but I feel like even through spring, we’ll all keep continuing to get better, and I feel like we can only grow. We’re going to be pretty solid once the season comes around. We got a lot to work on, but we’ll be even better.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know is what kind of strides — in production or playing time — Britt and Wooten will make in Year 2. Both will need to, though. Not only are they going to be among the first two players looked at to help make up for the loss of Tre’ Williams, but when Auburn’s three seniors leave following this season, they’re going to be looked at to lead the future of the position.
They have been molded in the image of the linebackers ahead of them on the depth chart. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Wooten is a rangy outside linebacker similar to Darrell Williams. The 6-foot, 228-pound Britt is a hard-hitting middle linebacker similar to Davis.
Neither played much last season. Wooten totaled eight tackles in eight games, and Britt four in 14. But both, along with the junior McBryde (13 tackles, two tackles for loss), could see an uptick in playing time this year around Auburn’s three standout seniors.
“Those guys are coming along fast, real fast,” Darrell Williams said. “They’re playing a lot more this year. Coach T-Will likes that. He likes to keep us fresh, and they’ll help us out a lot this year. It’s looking really good.”
THEY SAID IT
“I think it’s going good this year for us. These are guys I came in with and I’ve been playing with since Day 1, and I think we’ve got good chemistry. I think we’re just bonding together and we’re able to talk on the field and get things now.” — Montavious Atkinson
No area of Auburn’s defense got hit harder by departures than the secondary, which lost a top corner to the NFL and three senior safeties to graduation. We’re going to take a look at what we know and don’t know about the Tigers’ defensive backs, starting with corners.
Defense: Defensive line