Position coach Joe Whitt says he liked what he saw from his group in 2004 and he has expectations for even better play this fall.
The linebacker corps will be led by senior Travis Williams, who earned first team All-SEC status last year in his second season as a full-time starter and his first year as a middle linebacker. He moved from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker and did an outstanding job taking over for Dontarrious Thomas.
Williams made 80 tackles, with nine for losses and two QB sacks. He also intercepted two passes and forced a fumble.
"We are much farther along at mike linebacker than we were at this time last year when we didn't know who our starter was going to be," Whitt tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "Travis is back and will be the guy and that is a big plus for us. Backing him up will be Kevis Burnam and behind him there is a redshirt freshman, Courtney Harden.
"Travis was a team leader last year, along with a bunch of other guys," Whitt notes. "I don't expect him to be any different this year."
Burnam was a partial academic qualifier and had to sit out of games in 2002. The following year he was sidelined by a knee injury. Last season he finally got to play and saw limited action as the third team middle linebacker behind Williams and Mayo Sowell, who was a senior in 2004. Burnam made nine tackles and scored a touchdown on a 15-yard return of a fumble recovery.
Whitt says that Burnam, a 6-2, 242-pounder from Montezuma, Ga., with two seasons of eligibility remaining, looks physically ready to step up and earn more playing time this year with his knee in better shape than it was last year.
The third string middle linebacker is another player who has had to overcome knee surgery--redshirt freshman Courtney Harden from Colbert County High. Harden is up to 239 pounds on his six-foot-one frame and is ready to compete for playing time, too.
"It looks like Courtney has recovered," Whitt says. "He had a good winter workout. From all indications he is looking really strong. Kevis looks strong as well. It is just a matter of us going out there and seeing how they hold up. Until you are field tested, you don't know what you have got. That is basically we have to do now--get them out on the field and see where we are."
Whitt doesn't have to see much more from senior weakside linebacker Antarrious Williams to know that he has a winner at that position. Williams had his 2004 season cut short with a wrist injury in the Georgia game that required surgery. Head coach Tommy Tuberville says that he wants "A.T." to be a spectator for most of spring training. "We already know what he can do," Tuberville says.
Antarrious Williams was a major contributor to Auburn's defensive success last season.
Whitt notes that Williams will participate in some drills this spring and says he is looking forward to watching him play as a senior. "A.T. had a great season and we expect him to have another great season this fall." Williams was in on 44 tackles for the 13-0 Tigers and tied for the team lead in tackles for losses with nine. He had three sacks.
The coach is also excited about seeing what redshirt freshman Merrill Johnson can do this spring as a backup weakside linebacker. The 6-1, 201-pounder from Choctaw County High in Butler made a favorable impression on his teammates and coaches with his physical style of play last season. A player who made 184 tackles as a high school senior, he has shown the ability to find the football and do it quickly.
Karibi Dede, a 6-1, 216 junior from Woodbridge, Va., is a guy who can play both the weakside and strongside positions. Dede made one start and played in all 13 games as a sophomore. He made 29 tackles and recovered a fumble.
He will start the spring number one on the weakside with Williams not expected to see much action, but will likely be the top backup to returning starter Kevin Sears at the strongside spot this fall.
Sears, who is up to 6-4, 247 pounds, made 29 tackles last season, had 4.5 tackles for losses and one interception. "Kevin was as solid as a rock last year," Whitt says. "We have some things that we want Kevin to improve on, and he will, but he really played well for us last year."
Kevin Sears broke into the starting lineup last season.
Whitt is upbeat about the potential for 2004 signee, 6-0, 221 Chris Evans from Blount High in Prichard. He was a grayshirt who took classes as a part-time student in the fall. He enrolled at AU full-time in January, meaning he will be a true freshman for the 2005 season. He could get a look at both strongside and weakside linebacker, but will open spring on the strongside, the coach says.
Whitt will have two walk-ons to work with this spring. Justin Connally is a 6-0, 206 redshirt freshman from New Hope and A.J. Ruffin, a 6-0, 228 junior from Butler.
Travis Williams proved to be a great answer to the question of who would step up at middle linebacker for the Tigers last season.
"Those three starters returning, along with Karibi Dede, really played well for us last season," Whitt says. "We lose Derrick Graves and Mayo Sowell, but those four who are returning are really, really bright spots.
"Our goal for this spring is to make those four returning guys better as well as the others," Whitt adds. "If you don't get better you get caught up with and start going the other way. All of the linebackers can get better. There is always room for improvement. There are things that I will work on to make me better. The great thing about this group is that they want to get better. They know the little things they need to work on to make us better and I suspect we will do that."