Sophomore Travis Williams did what he has done since he arrived on the Plains. Quietly he worked hard and prepared for the chance to earn a starting spot. Now as the Tigers prepare to put the wraps on spring practice with Saturday's A-Day game, Williams has firmly established himself as the starter at weakside linebacker with Dontarrious Thomas in the middle and Karlos Dansby on the strong side. Coach Gene Chizik said that Williams is firmly the starter heading into two-a-days in August.
"Without question he's been the biggest surprise of spring practice," Chizik said of Williams. "He has just flat-out beat out every candidate we have at will linebacker and took the spot. It's that simple. That's through nothing but just that the boy wants to play the game. He's made efforts to do everything perfectly. You can see right now that he's taken to coaching because he's always around the ball. He's literally taken that job, it's his. That's what you want.
"I think what he did is that he tried to take coaching and absolutely, without a doubt, perfect technique and through doing that he's putting himself in position in our defense to make plays every day. He's a smaller guy with great quickness, smart, starting to understand the game. Last year Travis was just out there. There are a lot of things on the linebackers and he was just lost. He's just night and day. That's been a huge, huge, pleasant surprise for us."
Travis Williams tackles Carnell Williams during Wednesday's scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
An All-State linebacker from Columbia, S.C., Williams was a tackling machine when he arrived on the Plains. At just 188 pounds his first season in Auburn, he had to work hard to gain enough weight to challenge at linebacker in the SEC. Now 209 pounds, he said that he's getting the feel of things once again after struggling to get used to the physical play in big-time college football.
"It's kind of coming back to me," Williams said. "I'm around the ball a lot now. I'm basically having fun out there now. One thing that hit me during yesterday's practice, it wasn't that good, and Coach Chizik said some things that really hit home with me. He said we were out there practicing like we were trying to get by and there are guys my age fighting in Iraq, running from bullets. I was like, ‘Tomorrow I'm going to have some fun because I could easily be dodging bullets too.' It really came down to earth."
It has been many years since Auburn had a veteran starting unit on both sides of the ball, but that is just what the Tigers have heading into the 2003 season opener with USC. That is especially true on defense where Williams would be on the only underclassman in the starting 11 if he holds on to the job next fall. He said that is something that will be helpful to him in trying times next season.
"It's crazy, but having DT and Karlos back there by you helps out a lot," Williams said. "I'm just trying to earn their respect. That's what I really want to do is earn the respect of my teammates and have them trust me out there. It's a lot easier with the first team because they know what they are doing and I don't have to fight through too many linemen."
He might not realize it now, but Williams has already earned more than the usual amount of respect from one of his most impressive peers. A four-year starter for the Tigers at linebacker after coming into the program at just over 190 pounds, Thomas said that he's been impressed with the effort and desire that Williams has shown this spring while fighting for a starting job.
"Travis Williams is a totally different person, that's all I can say," Thomas said following Wednesday's scrimmage. "How he did it or whatever, he's come out at every practice getting better and better. He's making plays and picking balls off. He's just helping our defense out a lot. We were looking for our third linebacker. We still have three guys doing well, but Travis Williams is by far the most improved linebacker--by far including me and Karlos (Dansby). He's doing such a good job. He's really taken it upon himself to go out and try that much harder and get that much better."
Williams and his teammates will practice Thursday and take Friday off before closing spring practice with Saturday's A-Day game. Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 1 p.m. with a 30-minute autograph session scheduled following the game after a 15-minute break for the players.