AUBURN, Ala. — When Dontavius Russell arrived on the Plains, he gravitated toward players who were one or two classes ahead of him.
As his playing time increased, the defensive lineman continued developing those relationships.
Russell often approached defensive tackle Montravius Adams asking questions or seeking advice, always getting the help and guidance he was seeking.
Now that those teammates he’s been closer to — ones like Adams and (likely) Carl Lawson — are preparing for their final game as Tigers, the sophomore is finding he’s drawn to them again.
“I’ve seen seniors leave before, but these are the people that were just one year ahead of me when I came up,” Russell said. “It’s just crazy to see that they’re going to move on and be done. I’ve been trying to talk to them a little bit more. I know for myself, at least.”
In their time at Auburn this year’s senior class has experienced a BCS National Championship Game and finished last in the SEC West. After starting the year 1-2, upperclassmen helped keep the team unified and directed the Tigers to a six-game win streak.
“We’ve said all along this is one of the best leadership groups we’ve had,” Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve had ups and downs this year and when you do that you find out your true character and you find out the true character of your leaders.”
The realization of the impending departures started setting in for some during an outpouring of gratitude at the team’s banquet. Each day Auburn’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Oklahoma nears, so do the bittersweet goodbyes.
“When you walk off that field for the last time” Kerryon Johnson said. “And I know this is how I was last year, you realize ‘I’m never going to play with Montravius Adams again. Might not ever play with Josh Holsey again. Might never play with T.J. Davis again.’ You really starting thinking, ‘Wow, those guys really taught me a lot about how to be a man and how to carry yourself like a collegiate or pro athlete.’ I think that’s one thing that really comes for young guys whose eyes are still big every time they step out on the field on Saturdays that you just don’t realize in the moment right now, but you will, definitely, after the season.”
Consciously and subconsciously, the seniors have helped shape the future of the program.
And judging from the depth the Tigers will have next season — as well as from the playmaking ability demonstrated by freshmen — good days are ahead.
“Moving forward the players that are younger they’ve had great examples to look up to,” Malzahn said. “That’s what’s really exciting for me is to watch these guys grow and just keep building on what we’re doing.”
The lessons haven’t come only on the football field. Many of the most important teachings have happened away from the field as players have grown up and received their degrees.
“That’s where I want to get to,” Johnson said. “Graduated and going on with my life and making sure I’m on the direct good path. They’re down that path, so definitely have to learn what you can from them.”
Thankfully, there’s still time to learn.
It’s a more opportune moment for young and new players (some arrived just this week), too, considering Adams and other seniors will be preparing to compete against two Heisman contenders in Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.
“I think it’s real beneficial to just watch people and see what works for them and see what you can get from there game and how you can help,” Russell said. “For (defensive lineman) Nick (Coe) to be able to watch Carl, it’s the same thing. He can pick up from him and learn from him.”
Players are spending additional time together away from practice as well — whether it’s at team bonding events like laser tag and bowling, or just hanging out playing Madden — trying to take advantage of the time they have left at Auburn.
“This is the last time we get to see each other on a daily basis, really,” Johnson said. “So definitely try to spend time as much time with those guys and learn as much as I can.”