Having to replace all-everything linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas won't be an easy task, but the veteran coach says that he believes he has the tools to work with to make the unit a good one next season.
"We have to do a job of rebuilding," Whitt says. "Travis Williams is back and he was a good player for us last year. Beyond that we have to get the pieces to the puzzle worked out. We have some really, really good candidates."
Travis Williams returns as a starter for the Tigers.
Gone are the 218 career tackles, 10 sacks and eight interceptions from Dansby, one of the most versatile linebackers in Auburn history because of his ability to rush the passer, play the run and still get back into coverage.
Thomas, a solid contributor who battled minor injuries for much of his last two seasons, finished his career with 346 tackles and five and a half sacks in four seasons. That experience and productivity will be replaced with outstanding athletes, but players who are looking to gain experience on the run.
The only returning player with significant playing time in 2003 is junior-to-be Williams. The starter at the will (weakside) linebacker spot, Williams had 76 tackles last season and was a steady contributor to Auburn's defense, which was ranked fifth nationally. Whitt says that his return along with several top backups makes the position one to watch in the spring.
Mayo Sowell is hoping to win a starting job as Auburn's middle linebacker.
"Mayo Sowell has been here for five years," Whitt says. "Derrick Graves has been here for four years. We've got Kevin Sears, who played quite a bit last year. We've talked about working Antarrious (Williams) some at safety. We've got Lemarcus Rowell, who is back and has had playing time at mike. Kevis Burnam is injured, but has a chance to be well be the end of the spring and able to go."
A backup for much of his career, Sowell is expected to enter spring practice as Auburn's number one middle linebacker with Rowell and Quentin Groves also working at the position. Back with Auburn's team after spending last fall at a junior college, Rowell is a player with the ability to make huge strides and push Sowell to the limit for his job. Burnam had surgery last fall and is expected to be healthy when Auburn reports for two-a-days in August.
On the outside Sears and Graves will battle for the sam (strongside) linebacker position vacated by Dansby. A fantastic athlete who came on strong last season, Sears had 14 tackles in limited duty, but showed a nose for the football and an aggressive style. Graves is the consummate team player and his speed along with a solid work ethic make him a real shot to win the job.
Behind Travis Williams at will are several players looking to make some noise. The most notable of those is Montavian Collier. A signee with the Tigers in 2003, he sat out last season until getting qualified. A safety at Opelika, the 6-2, 220-pounder has great speed and instincts and will be a fun player to watch for the Tigers in years to come.
"Montavian is a guy that we're very hopeful can come on and play well," Whitt says. "Quentin Groves and Montavian Collier, all of the young guys that haven't played and been in games, they are certainly going to get their opportunity. They are very gifted. Montavian is as gifted as anybody out there and I feel like Quentin Groves has the same kind of ability. We'll give them the opportunity and see how they respond to it."
In addition there could be several players who may get a look at linebacker before spring practice is done. Both safeties Will Herring and Karibi Dede have been talked about as possible linebackers for the Tigers and both have the size and quickness to make the move if necessary. Antarrious Williams will play both linebacker and safety this spring to see where he does the best job. Whitt says that the numbers are there, now they just have to find the right combinations to get the maximum performance out of the defense.
"We've just got a combination of guys and we don't know where they are going to fit right now. We're just going to mix it up and work. It's sort of like making a great pound cake. We have all the ingredients, we just have to blend it right. We'll take a little time and get started in the spring and see if it all works out. There's a long way to go right now."
Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of previews on spring football 2004.
Next Up: Offensive line.