Not too long ago, linebacker was considered one of the weakest positions on Auburn’s roster. Now it should be the most stable area of the defense as the team prepares for fall camp.
Sure, there have been some good players over the years – Josh Bynes and Cassanova McKinzy come to mind – but the unit hadn’t lived up to the standard set by groups from the Pat Dye and Tommy Tuberville eras.
Enter Travis Williams.
He was hired before the 2016 season to be Auburn’s linebackers coach. He himself was a tremendous linebacker for Auburn despite being undersized and overlooked in the recruiting process. He made All-SEC teams in 2004 and 2005, and won the Pat Dye leadership award in those same seasons. He played alongside Karlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas, and Will Herring.
Some considered the hire a reach, since Williams hadn’t been a full time coach at a Power 5 school as a position coach yet. Some thought it was a safe choice for Gus Malzahn, since Williams had been a grad assistant in 2009-2010. But in reality, he was the perfect person to bring about a change in attitude and production on the Plains.
In many ways, Auburn linebackers led the defensive resurgence of 2016. An area of weakness turned into a strength and the Tigers finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense. They played much tougher against the run and showed the versatility to defend in the passing game. And the best news? All the major players return in 2017.
Tre Williams, the only senior of the group, was the highest recruited of the bunch. He has steadily improved each year and become a force at weakside linebacker, finishing second on the team in tackles last season.
Deshaun Davis, a junior from Mobile, burst onto the scene last season and grabbed the starting middle linebacker spot. Like his position coach, Davis is a bit undersized but makes up for it with tremendous energy, passion, and fearlessness to attack ball carriers. Personally I had a blast watching him play last year.
At strongside linebacker, junior Darrell Williams took a big step forward in 2016 with a productive season. The Hoover product seemed to flourish in Kevin Steele’s system.
Defensive coaches insist that junior Montavious Atkinson is considered part of that starting group. He was usually the first reserve to enter the game and provides some flexibility in pass coverage, as he used to play safety. If any of the three were to be hurt, I believe Atkinson would be the next man into the starting lineup.
Sophomore Richard McBryde provides additional depth. Linebackers out of high school, Tre Threat and Tadarian Moulty may be called upon to provide depth at the Buck position this season. Moultry is an explosive, highly touted linebacker who chose Auburn over Alabama. It will be interesting to see if he ends up playing this season and if so, where on the field he lines up.
It’s important to note that Auburn typically plays with either 2 or 3 linebackers on the field at a time, depending on whether they are in their base defense or in nickel. With four quality experienced players at their position, true freshmen Chandler Wooten and KJ Britt are potential redshirt candidates.
Expectations are incredibly different for this group than they were a year ago. Despite the defensive line and secondary having many quality players returning, it is the linebackers who will be expected to lead the way. With Montravious Adams and Carl Lawson gone, their job may be a bit more difficult this season. But I think they have the talent and experience to handle it.