With the season almost here, we're taking a look at previewing the 2016 Auburn Tigers by each position group. The first two can be found in this story stream!
Key Losses -
Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy, Justin Garrett, Kenny Flowers,
Key Returnees -
Tre' Williams, Darrell Williams, Montavious Atkinson, Deshaun Davis, JaViere Mitchell, Cameron Toney, Jeff Holland*
Newcomers (includes redshirts) -
T.J. Neal, Tre Threat, Richard McBryde, Paul James III*
*As noted yesterday, these players could also spend some time as a DE/LB/pass-rushing specialist hybrid.
Causes For Optimism
Tre' Williams was a 5* recruit out of high school and looked good in his limited time behind Frost and McKinzy over the last two years. Now he's ready to step up and be the man. T.J. Neal is a quality graduate transfer who was a tackling machine at Illinois. He was in the Top 10 in tackles every year there (9th as a true freshman, 4th as a sophomore, 2nd as a junior), and now he's come to the Plains to take on SEC ball carriers.
Neal was a presumed lock as a starter when he was signed. Now it looks like he's more in a fight for the 2nd starting linebacker slot with Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams. Auburn's defense will probably spend a lot of time with only two linebackers on the field, so a third starting slot is a bit harder to project. I think that's where Paul James III and Jeff Holland come in. When Auburn goes three (or possibly four if you could Lawson as a Buck LB) linebackers, I think Holland and/or James are the likely options.
There's a ton of inexperience here, but there has been a lot of praise for the players who were playing behind multi-year starters. Auburn played only 2 linebackers for the majority of the last few seasons, so these younger guys never had as much opportunity to show their skills. If they're pushing someone like T.J. Neal, then I'm gaining confidence in them.
I also have a lot of confidence in Auburn's linebacker coaching. Yes, Travis Williams is in his first year at a major school as a position coach. However, do you remember the way he played linebacker? If he can teach his players to play like that, then he'll be a great one. Don't forget that Kevin Steele is an excellent linebacker coach, as well. There's a reason Nick Saban hired him back multiple times to coach linebackers (recruiting is, admittedly, another major reason).
It's an unproven unit, but there's a lot of talent and a lot of promise. They'll also have what I believe will be a dominant front seven in front of them and a pretty strong set of defensive backs behind them to help them out.
Causes For Concern
They're unproven. The only player with anything resembling extensive experience is a graduate transfer. Tre' Williams has the talent and experience to step up, but he's the only player among the returnees who does.
I believe this can be a very good unit by the end of the season. The problem is that Auburn's schedule doesn't exactly allow for a large learning curve. The linebackers will be facing an excellent Tight-end from Clemson in the first game, and then they'll have to deal with the Aggies and LSU Tigers in back-to-back weeks after the Arkansas State game. There isn't much time for them to learn.
Will Tre' Williams be able to produce in his first meaningful outing? How will the change from B1G to SEC affect T.J. Neal? Are the other players behind them ready to step up? I don't know. I have nothing but questions about this unit right now, and while I do believe they can be good, it's always a concern when all you really have to go on is potential.
By the end of the season, the linebackers will be fantastic. T.J. Neal is very talented. So is Tre' Williams. The others who get playing time will step up as well. They'll be aided by the Front 4, but by the end of the season, the Tigers will have one of the better Front 7s in the SEC.
We're going to go through some growing pains to get there, though. There will be missed tackles and blown coverages and failure to fill gaps. It won't take them long to get it together, though, because the defense will face two of the best teams in the nation in the first four games, and that's going to forge them in the hottest of fires real quick. It's just going to hurt a bit getting there.
Next up, the defensive backs!