AUBURN, Ala. — The oneness of Auburn football’s linebackers is as visible as the numbers on their orange and blue practice jerseys.
Whether the group is wrapping up opposing offensive players inside Jordan-Hare Stadium or strolling through the Athletics Complex, their bond is evident. Rarely, if ever do they speak ill of each other. Their camaraderie seems unbreakable, stretching into the past and reaching into the future.
“I would say this is like the closest bond I ever [had] with a team,” Montavious Atkinson said. “Everybody just bonds together, everybody is there for one another, and we’d just stick our necks out for one another.”
They’re hungry, but more importantly they’re united. The Tigers haven’t had an All-SEC honoree at the position since current linebackers coach Travis Williams claimed the accolade in 2004-05. Even so, the crew understand the only way to achieve their goals is to depend on each other at all times, in all settings.
“We have a really good brotherhood bond, even outside the athletics complex. That’s what I like about us,” junior Deshaun Davis said. “We spend time, whether it’s just playing a video game or going to a movie. We go to the pool a lot and play basketball at the pool in the rec, but stuff like that transfers over to the football field.”
Time away from the gridiron and silliness seems inconsequential, but it’s far from insignificant.
“It’s different when you’re playing with guys that have your back,” Davis said. “Real brothers, even with the coaches. (Coach) T-Will plays video games with us and stuff like that. We’ll go in his office and play the game. It’s just a different type of love.”
Davis grew up playing youth football with and against senior linebacker Tre’ Williams. That relationship is a model, but the group’s mentality is really spurred by Travis Williams. The animated assistant coach follows the precedent instilled in him by former Auburn assistant coach Joe Whitt.
“I know I’m not here to be a football coach. I’m here to be involved in the lives,” he said. “I think that’s where I have the edge on a lot of people because [of] the relationship with our guys. I can go and bite on them and they know I care about them, and they’ll want to run through a wall for me.”
Williams sometimes jokes that his players might think he’s bipolar. All the fun makes it easier to understand where he’s coming from when he flips the coach switch, though.
“There’s no thinking. He’s very bipolar,” Davis said. “We’ll be in his office or be in meeting rooms joking and laughing. We can walk downstairs and he’s a totally different guy. But you kind of need that as a player. At the end of the day, we know he loves us and he’ll lay it out on the line for all of us and we’ll do the same for him.”
So when Williams ramped up his intensity during Auburn’s fall camp this August, it was well received — especially after 2016.
“Oh, they responded. They don’t have a choice,” Williams said. “There are going to be times your boss comes to work and tells you to do something and people have to do it. You’re going to have a family, you have to feed your family. You’re going to do what you have to do to feed your family. You have to go to work.
“Don’t leak your feelings. Men don’t leak their feelings. They’ve been great with that, and they want to be coached hard. I like that.”
Head coach Gus Malzahn’s team experienced elation and frustration last season, but the linebackers provided consistency. This season, the standards are higher.
Unlike last season, outsiders aren’t whispering doubts about the position coach, who was a rookie in 2016. Fans aren’t asking which young, unproven player will step up against defending national champion Clemson. Few are wondering if the group can withstand the the SEC West.
Instead, Auburn’s linebackers energize a talented defense. Still, Williams takes pleasure in reminiscing about what’s been said.
“I remind them where we were last year and what people were saying last year — and what people are probably still saying this year,” he said. “We haven’t shown anything. We’ve gotten better, but we have a long ways to go.”
Williams’ squad possess the same attitude.
“We were saying last year that would have been OK, but we hold ourselves at a higher standard because last year is not good enough,” Darrell Williams said. “We want to be better than we were last year as a group. We’re going to keep working to get better.”
Darrell Williams, Tre’ Williams, Davis and Atkinson gained invaluable experience last season. Travis Williams has no doubts he can turn to or call on any of the four.
The veteran group also has been instrumental in the transition for freshmen Chandler Wooten, K.J. Britt and TD Moultry. That’s big because in Coach Williams’ mind, they will “have to play.”
But even as the team was grinding through fall camp on a deserted campus, Williams maintained perspective. Encouragement and fun are just as important as forcing turnovers and making the right checks. Fun is “flying around” and “playing football like you were playing when you were in Pop Warner.”
In August, “stacking good practices” was the goal. Williams challenged his group to see how many consecutive days they could excel. But on Sept. 2, it’ll be about stacking Saturdays.
“Their goal is to be All-SEC. We dream big in our room, we dream big,” Williams said. “We want to be All-SEC, we want to be All-Americans. That’s what you come to Auburn to be. … You come to Auburn to play great at linebacker, and to win championships and to be on top defenses.
“Now we’ve got to go to work.”