Six-foot-one, 209-pound junior Travis Williams was the lone returning linebacker starter from the 2003 season when he finished third on the team with 67 tackles at the weakside position. Travis was moved to the middle before the start of preseason practices, which made way for another Williams, Antarrious, at the weakside spot. Six-foot-four, 240-pound sophomore Kevin Sears filled in at the strongside position.
The combination of Travis and Antarrious, who is only 5-11, 208 pounds, forms one of the smallest major college linebacker duos around, but also one of the quickest, most intelligent and best tackling duos as well.
After a 3-0 start by the Tigers, the Williams are one and two on the team in tackles, and both came up big in Saturday's 10-9 win over then fourth-ranked LSU.
"Our linebackers played the best game that I've seen the linebackers as a group play in the last few years," head coach Tommy Tuberville says. "Our speed paid dividends for us in this game, and it's going to have to continue to pay dividends as we go."
Facing two athletic quarterbacks in Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell, as well as a powerful ground attack in Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard, Travis and Antarrious were being counted on to have a big game against the Bayou Bengals. Travis registered eight solo tackles and Antarrious had five solos, including his first career sack.
"It was great," Antarrious says of his 10-yard sack on Russell. "It changed the momentum a little bit and made it second down and 20 so it helped us out a lot."
Antarrious Williams makes a stop vs. LSU.
In a close defensive struggle like the game against LSU, the coaches didn't rest some of their front-line players like Antarrious Williams. Also, backup middle linebacker Mayo Sowell was unable to play due to an eye injury.
"We played that game without a backup mike (middle) linebacker," defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says. "Kevis (Kevis Burnam) is the third-team mike so Travis had to go every play so he went every play and every special team (play). Antarrious Williams went virtually every play with the exception of about 10. He went every punt. He's on punt return. These guys can play 80 plays. They're just very good football players. The size is really insignificant at this point."
Despite the size of the two linebackers, Travis says that one of their strengths is stopping the run. "LSU's defense was playing pretty good so I was thinking that they were just trying to win 9-3 because they weren't throwing the ball," he says. "They were just running so I thought they were playing not to lose. I was like, ‘Well, all right, they're going to go three and out.' All they were doing was running the ball so I didn't know if that was their game plan to just try to win 9-3 because I was thinking that they weren't even throwing any deep balls or anything. It worked to our advantage."
After the shiftier LSU running back Justin Vincent had only 29 yards on nine carries in the first half, LSU brought in its bruiser, Alley Broussard. Broussard ran for 75 yards in the second half on only nine carries, but Travis says that his size wasn't the difference.
"With the bigger backs that we face, we can get to them before they even get rolling," Travis says of Broussard. "Linebackers are basically like running backs. We try to find the open hole just like running backs do. We go against that everyday in Ronnie (Ronnie Brown) and Carnell (Carnell Williams). They're two different types of backs so we'll be ready for any type of back that comes."
LSU finished the day with only nine points and 308 yards of total offense. Starting tailback Vincent, who rushed for 201 yards against Georgia in last year's SEC Championship Game and another 117 yards against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, was held to 34 yards on 12 carries Saturday against Auburn.
"I think LSU was a little surprised (at our linebacker play)," Travis says. "They were running right at us. They were gashing us a couple of times because we were misfit, but when we lined up and played our defense they weren't getting any yards. If we just line up and play our defense and know where our help is, and use what we've got, then we'll be all right."
Even though both Antarrious and Travis are playing excellent football through the first three games, neither is satisfied with where they're at and want to continue to work harder to be the best they can possibly be.
"We've got to stay hungry," Travis says. "Right now we've got a target on our back. We've got a lot of teams that are going to be gunning at us, but we've just got to stay hungry.
"We still make a lot of mistakes. Right now as a whole linebacker group, we're about 50 percent right now. By saying that, once we get to 100 percent, it's going to be a sight to see. We can put on a show then for real. Right now we're at 50, and we've got 50 more to go, so once we have that 100 percent it's going to be something special."
Travis and Antarrious say that the reason why the linebackers are off to a great start in 2004 is because of their speed and tackling ability. Tuberville agrees. "We tackle very well in the open field," the head coach says. "Against teams like (LSU) you're going to be one on one. When you get one on one with the linebackers, normally the backs win out, but Saturday they didn't. We held our own. There's room for improvement, but I don't think we can ask for much more effort from these linebackers."
Auburn resumes play this Saturday when The Citadel Bulldogs come to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. The next SEC game for the Tigers is set for Oct. 2nd at 6:45 p.m. CDT against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.
"I'm not even worried about Tennessee right now," Antarrious says. "We're getting ready for The Citadel. When Tennessee comes, we'll prepare for them, but right now we're playing The Citadel and just getting ready for them coming in. We've got to defend our territory.
"We're going to work on technique and we're going to stress it a lot this week," he adds. "We've just got to improve this week from what we messed up on last week."
If Williams and Williams continue to improve, the sky is the limit for the two junior linebackers.
"You can look at the size of a guy right now and that doesn't necessarily tell you anything," Chizik says. "These two we've got, the Williams twins, they're special people. They've got something to them."