AUBURN, Ala. — For the most part, Auburn football’s defensive front seems set for the 2018 season. The Tigers return three defensive line starters, three veteran linebackers and several non-starting linemen who will be key pieces in their rotation this fall.
Last season, Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams told reporters he had “four starters” — Tre’ Williams, Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson. Tre’ Williams is off to the NFL after finishing his eligibility.
And if fans are wondering who No. 4 could be in 2018, the first place to look is sophomore K.J. Britt.
“K.J. is working a lot with the first team,” Auburn linebacker Darrell Williams said last month. “Coach T-Will likes to see who guys can play with, what combinations he can work out better. … It will be fun.”
Britt played in all 14 games last season for Auburn, recording 4 tackles. Most of his reps came on special teams, with late-game defensive work coming in lopsided victories for the Tigers.
Still, the former 4-star linebacker’s play caught the eye of plenty of people, including defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. In December, Steele mentioned Britt as one of a few young defensive players who had already shown “leadership ability” early in their careers.
This spring, Steele said Britt and fellow sophomore Chandler Wooten were important pieces of Auburn’s depth at linebacker.
“The thing is that now we have the luxury with Chandler and K.J., they’ve added to that,” Steele said. “So smart guys who understand the defense. People don’t realize there’s a lot to be said for conceptually understanding what you’re doing and it’s not constantly changing.”
Because of the widespread use of spread offenses in college football, Auburn’s base defense is not a 4-3 but a 4-2-5. A third linebacker often gets sacrificed for a nickel defensive back, so the Tigers usually play with two linebackers on the field.
During viewing windows in spring practice, Britt was on the field most often with Davis, Williams and Atkinson in the two-deep. He’s a natural backup to Davis, who enters his third and final year as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker in 2018.
He earned the nickname “Downhill Britt” as a freshman last season because of his eagerness to stop runs up the middle. That’s a fine attribute for an inside linebacker, but Auburn needs a more all-around playmaker to be the future “quarterback” of its defense.
“He’s gotten out of that and become a more full-package linebacker,” Darrell Williams said. “He’s getting better at being more vocal. He’s a Mike linebacker, so he’s doing a lot of that, he’s calling everything out, and he’s still being physical at the same time.”
Britt came up with 5 tackles during the annual A-Day spring game, playing often with the second-team defense.
The Oxford, Ala., native dropped back in coverage, brought pressure on the quarterback and maintained his usual run-stopping prowess in his first 2018 action in front of fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That improvement, along with the increased reps in practice, make him one to watch in the fall for a loaded defensive front.
“He’s not just downhill, just everything downhill,” Darrell Williams said. “He’s gotten a lot better at everything, so I’m looking for a good season from him.”