AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers roster has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
A lot can change in the course of a year. Auburn football entered 2016 with question marks at running back and finished it with resounding, Kamryn Pettway-led answers. The same thing happened on defense for its linebackers. With little returning experience, the Tigers got a surprisingly high return from their unit last fall.
Now the switch flips to 2017, where Auburn linebackers will expected to be leaders once again. The position group has turned back the clock to the days of position coach Travis Williams, who starred on some elite linebacker units during his days on the Plains. He’s looking for the exact same in 2017.
“Every year, we have to get better,” Williams said this spring. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to get All-Americans and All-SEC guys. That’s what we’re trying to get. That’s what we’re aiming for. This place has had a lot of All-Americans and All-SEC. We’re just trying to work hard to get there.”
With three upperclassmen leading the way, another on the verge of a breakout campaign and a star-studded list of underclassmen behind them, Auburn’s linebackers have the potential to be the best single unit on the entire roster in 2017. They just have some potential issues to iron out first.
2017 Auburn linebackers
- Tre’ Williams (Senior; 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds)
- Deshaun Davis (Junior; 5-11, 246)
- Darrell Williams (Junior; 6-2, 244)
- Montavious Atkinson (Junior; 6-1, 218)
- Richard McBryde (Sophomore; 6-1, 237)
- K.J. Britt (True freshman; 6-0, 239)
- T.D. Moultry (True freshman; 6-2, 240)
- Chandler Wooten (True freshman; 6-2, 237)
- Conner Sibley (Sophomore; 5-10. 203)*
- Josh French (True freshman; 5-11, 211)*
- Josh Shockley (Junior; 5-10, 224)*
- Chase Ritter (Senior; 5-10, 205)*
CONFIDENCE: Almost everybody’s back from strong 2016
Auburn entered the 2016 season with a lot of questions at linebacker. The Tigers lost all their regular starters at the position and introduced yet another new position coach in Travis Williams. They had to enter the season relying on Tre’ Williams, who only had made four starts, and a rotation of linebackers with little on-field experience.
But that group set the tone for Auburn’s best defensive season under Gus Malzahn. Linebacker play, long a struggle for the Tigers since the days of Tommy Tuberville, picked up tremendously with the breakout campaigns of Davis and Darrell Williams next to Tre’ Williams. They combined for 182 tackles last season — something the Tigers had missed in years past.
“I remember last year during these interviews, we didn’t have players,” Travis Williams said this spring. “Now this year they got to be the strong point. It’s a funny deal. I just try to keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s just getting better … so we got to stay humble, stay working and keep the main thing the main thing.”
This year, all three are back. While Auburn normally plays two linebackers on the field at a time, this trio has a healthy amount of starting experience. Another offseason under their belts should lead to bigger returns in 2017, as they worked on being more versatile during spring ball.
This unit also has tremendous depth. Travis Williams said junior Montavious Atkinson, mostly a special teams and spot-unit heavy hitter last season, is viewed as starter quality in this unit. Athletic sophomore Richard McBryde is ready for his chance to shine, and then there’s the trio of blue-chip linebackers Auburn signed in the 2017 class.
CAUTION: Finding the best rotation will be tough
Linebacker might be the only position on the roster where Auburn football doesn’t have a real problem heading into 2017. The unit is experienced, healthy and deep. But if there’s one thing to watch out for, it’s how Auburn will try to figure out to get everybody on the field.
In a primarily two-linebacker system, one of the top three is usually on the sidelines. That takes away playing time from someone such as Atkinson, who is viewed inside the program as being on the verge of becoming a star.
The true freshman trio of K.J. Britt, T.D. Moultry and Chandler Wooten all have the ability to play early for Auburn. The Tigers might get creative by letting the pass-rushing Moultry play closer to the defensive line early on, but Britt and Wooten soon could be Auburn’s top inside and outside linebacker pair. And coach Williams made it clear he won’t default to experience.
“I’ll put the best guy out there,” Williams said this spring. “Freshman. Senior. You get what you earn. There’s no, ‘This is your senior year, so you just naturally become the guy’ or ‘This is your redshirt junior year.’ No, I can’t play that game. Because you know what, put the best guy out there, it’s the best thing for the defense. It’s the best thing for Auburn football.”
Williams will have a difficult but ultimately good problem to have on his hands in 2017. He has to find the combinations that will put the Auburn defense in the best positions to succeed. Linebacker play will lead the way again for this defense, and it has the potential to surpass last year’s performance.