Auburn's new linebacker coach, Travis Williams, worked with seven scholarship players during spring practice, taking over a group which possesses the least amount of depth on the team. Not only does the linebacker corps lack proven depth, but it also is very short on Auburn game experience going into 2016.
Having the linebackers prepared for the upcoming season is a challenge Coach Williams seems prepared to take on just as he did as an undersized linebacker during his playing days on the Plains. Ironically, Travis Williams is the last Auburn linebacker to be named first-team All-Southeastern Conference.
“We don’t have to say anything,” Williams said of his the group he coaches. “We are going to walk silent and carry a big stick. I told them, ‘In this room we are going to be a group of overachievers, and that’s okay because I was one, but you have to have to have that mentality.’ I told them if you don’t have that mentality, outside this room nobody is going to think you’re worth a crap, but you have to go to work every day thinking that.”
Williams, whose college position coach was Joe Whitt, played for a man who coached a large number of productive linebackers, something the current coach understands.
From 1990-2006 Auburn’s leading tackler was a linebacker in 72.3 percent of its games. Since the 2006 season the linebackers have been the leading tackler during a game only 48.7 percent of the time.
There is little doubt linebacker recruiting and performance at Auburn began to decline after Whitt coached his last game in 2005. Williams remains close to his mentor, a person Williams credits for his growth as an Auburn player and as a man.
“I have my family picture, and I have Coach Whitt,” Williams pointed out. “If I can get even close to what he did, I think I will be okay. Every time I walk in here I have this photo to remind me the level that he set. He is like a dad. He’s my guy. He’s the one who educated me on Auburn, and what Auburn is. He taught me how to be a man.”
Williams is faced with the task of replacing 2015 senior linebackers Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Justin Garrett. The trio combined to play in 138 games and make 602 tackles during their collegiate careers. Tre Williams, a junior, and sophomore Darrell Williams emerged from spring drills as guys making a push for starting spots along with redshirt sophomore Deshaun Davis.
Tre Williams is shown during Auburn's 2016 A-Day spring scrimmage.
Former Illinois linebacker and graduate transfer T.J. Neal is scheduled to join the competition for playing time when practice resumes in August. Neal has 245 career tackles as a two-year starter for the Fighting Illini. He provides much-needed experience on the field as a proven linebacker.
Excluding Neal, Auburn’s scholarship linebackers enter 2016 with a total of 48 games of experience and five starts. Talent and depth on the defensive line will need to mask the lack of experience from a youthful linebacking corps, especially early in the season.
From 1990-2006 Auburn’s leading tackler with double-digit stops was a linebacker 46.0 percent of the time and from 2007-2015 it dropped to 26.5 percent. Will Herring is the last Auburn linebacker selected in the NFL Draft when he was taken in the fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks. Though not drafted, former Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes has played in the NFL the past five season, appearing in 55 games, while making 20 starts. Bynes made 11 starts during the 2015 season for the Detroit Lions, having his most successful season as a pro.
During Auburn’s last five recruiting classes, only 12 linebackers were signed. From that group seven will be on the 2016 Auburn roster. Williams knows there is no time for excuses as he prepares his first linebacker corps for the upcoming season. Obtaining the most of his current personnel and preparing them to play winning football will be his top priorities. It was this approach that made Williams successful as a player and should provide a strong foundation as a coach