AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn hadn’t faced 10 snaps on defense against Vanderbilt when Gus Malzahn surveyed his sideline and came to a tough realization.
“We are just about out of linebackers,” Malzahn recalled after the game.
On Vanderbilt’s ninth play of the game, the officiating crew ejected sophomore starting linebacker Deshaun Davis for a huge hit on a defenseless Kalija Lipscomb.
Targeting or no? pic.twitter.com/00SN1Fy823
— C.J. Holmes (@_ceejay22au) November 5, 2016
The ejection put Auburn’s linebackers — which normally stick to a 3-man rotation — in a tough spot, as junior Tre’ Williams wasn’t available due to an ankle injury.
But the Tigers didn’t falter at the position in a 23-16 win over Vanderbilt. Sophomore Darrell Williams, the usual “third man” behind Davis and Tre’ Williams, led the team with 11 tackles.
“With Tre’ down, me and Deshaun already knew we were going to have to get more reps,” Williams said. “With Deshaun going down on that targeting call, I knew I was going to get more reps. I just had to step up, and the other guys had to step up.”
Williams’ performance set the tone for a big-time effort from the makeshift linebacker corps.
Senior transfer T.J. Neal finished second for Auburn with 9 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, in his biggest performance of the season. Sophomore Montavious Atkinson, who made his first career start in place of Tre’ Williams, added 5 tackles and another big tackle for loss.
“We’ve both been just waiting on a chance, waiting on a moment, and I feel like we seized the moment when it was presented,” Atkinson said. “We did what we needed to do. We stepped up and got the job done.”
Together, Auburn’s linebackers kept Vanderbilt’s rushing attack at bay Saturday afternoon. Ralph Webb, who ranked second in the SEC in rushing yards per game, only had 46 yards on 13 carries. Vanderbilt only had 13 rushing yards in the entire second half, when the Tigers held the Commodores to just 3 points.
For Atkinson, the uptick in reps wasn’t new. The Tigers used him in spots throughout the season in case anything happened to the main trio of Davis, Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams.
But Neal’s 9 tackles stood out Saturday. He only had more than two tackles in one game — Louisiana-Monroe — prior to the Vanderbilt matchup. The Illinois transfer has come a long way from complaining about a lack of playing time in Week 1 on Twitter.
“I am proud of him because he is a grad transfer,” Malzahn said. “He had not been able to play a whole lot. He has a good attitude, and he got his opportunity … (Neal) did a super job. Montavious Atkinson did a super job. They played a lot of snaps.”
Since his ejection came in the first half, Davis will be available for Auburn’s upcoming road trip to Georgia next Saturday. The Tigers will also hope to get Tre’ Williams back from his ankle injury.
But if Auburn is a man or two down again at linebacker, it’ll be ready.
“The reaction was probably the same as when (the ejection was called on) Tre’ Williams,” Darrell Williams said. “Other than adjustments and stuff, there wasn’t much talk. We’re ready for that. That’s why we build depth.”