AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football started a maximum of three linebackers under first-year position coach Travis Williams last season. More often than not, he only had two on the field at a time.
All three of his regular starters — Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams — are back for another season in 2017. But they aren’t the only first-teamers in a tight position group, as junior Montavious Atkinson now is considered as much as a starter as the other three.
“Atkinson has all the tools,” Travis Williams said Tuesday. “That’s what people don’t know. I don’t have starters. This spring, we’re doing an orange, blue and white group. I rotate four guys with the orange. It’s not Deshaun and Darrell or Deshaun and Tre’ or Atkinson and Darrell. Any second, you’re going to see those four guys out there.”
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Auburn developed a strong rotation between Davis and the two Williamses last season, when the Tigers had a resurgent season on the defensive side of the ball.
Many expected the linebacker group to stay the same in 2017. Auburn only lost reserve middle linebacker T.J. Neal to graduation, and sophomore Tre Threat moved to the defensive line for a chance at more playing time.
However, Atkinson has changed that with a highly productive offseason.
“This year he’s kind of taken himself to another level,” Darrell Williams said. “Having a better IQ of the game, learning more, being able to react to different things more because he knows the defense more than what he did last year, you know what I’m saying? He’ll be able to contribute a lot more for us too.”
In limited playing time last season, Atkinson was highly productive. He recorded 30 tackles — the same number as star defensive end Carl Lawson and cornerback Josh Holsey — and 4.5 tackles for loss.
This spring, it’s clear Atkinson no longer is a second-tier linebacker. If he keeps up his current pace, he could be in the starting lineup in Auburn’s season opener.
“You can put me and Monte, me and Deshaun, me and Darrell, Darrell and Monte,” Tre’ Williams said earlier this month. “You can put anybody together, and the defense will not change.”
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That boost from Atkinson’s breakout offseason is important to Travis Williams, who said he “trusts all four guys” in his orange group. With that extra starter-quality depth, Auburn could stay fresher at linebacker during the regular season.
“That’s the thing about having guys that you can rotate,” Travis Williams said. “You have to rotate your guys, you can’t just play two linebackers. You can, and it looks good, but they’re going to be tired. You’re not going to have the same effect.”
After two years as an intriguing reserve, it’s all starting to come together at the right time for Atkinson.
“Atkinson is having a good spring,” Travis Williams said. “The game is slowing down for him. He has a really good skill set. He has what it takes to be a good linebacker. Now he’s taking it to another level.”