MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Auburn’s linebacker depth is not the deepest, but Kevin Steele likes what he has on the roster.
The Auburn defensive coordinator exited spring practices confident in four linebackers in the rotation, a noticeable voice of positivity after the Tigers had to start over with the departure of starters Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.
Junior Tre’ Williams, with four career starts under his belt, leads the group consisting of Montavious Atkinson, Darrell Williams and DeShaun Davis. Tre’ Williams had 55 tackles, recovered a fumble and started three games last season.
“I thought they did a nice job in terms of they played with really good instincts, they mastered their craft in terms of learning how to play without having mental errors,” Steele said Wednesday outside the Montgomery Quarterback Club’s annual meeting. “Again, we didn’t have very much (of the defense) in because we wanted them to play fast, but I thought they hit a stride and we just have to keep improving. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.”
No linebacker is set at any one spot, whether it’s at Money (Will linebacker) or in the middle, though it appears Tre’ Williams is the most versatile — and experienced linebacker — alongside Davis. Tre’ Williams is the only returning linebacker with a start under his belt.
“It’s all interchangeable now,” said Steele, who coordinated LSU’s defense in 2015. “You could see a game where one linebacker may be standing on the end of the line of scrimmage rushing the passer and the next game he’s playing linebacker because it’s such a personnel thing now. We’ve got to create different looks so we can get a four-man rush without having to pressure all the time. Sometimes you have to move people around to do that.”
Auburn will receive a much-needed boost with the addition of Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal. He’s expected to arrive on campus May 18 after graduating from Illinois. He likely will play in the middle, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stick to one position. After all, Auburn has to find a way to properly replace the 601 career tackles they lost to graduation and eligibility (Frost, McKinzy and Justin Garrett).
Rotation will be crucial next season, too.
“They can play multiple positions in the same game,” Steele said. “The snap count in college football has gone way up and it’s a fast-paced deal. It’s more like basketball than huddle-up football and so you’ve got to be careful because you start getting the pitch count too high on a guy against a fast-paced offense, fatigue sets in and now you’re playing with 10 1/2 men.”