Editor’s note: In advance of Auburn’s A-Day spring scrimmage, SEC Country is highlighting one storyline of note each day to help prepare fans for the culmination of spring practice. Thursday’s entry focuses on a position group with plenty of unanswered questions. Wednesday’s story spotlighted what should be one of Auburn’s greatest strengths.
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s quest to replace three former starters at linebacker may not be as difficult as many believe.
First-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has not only been impressed, but he has been “pleasantly surprised in terms of progress” with the relatively inexperienced group led by junior Tre’ Williams, who started three games last season.
Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Justin Garrett departed after the season and with them they took unmatched experience and 601 career tackles. Despite the impressive numbers, the trio took their fair share of criticism, too, especially on blown assignments and gap control.
Steele, who helps Travis Williams with the linebackers, pointed to Williams, DeShaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavius Atkinson as the core group.
“(They) really worked hard to progress in terms of just playing with their eyes and being fundamentally sound and being gap responsible and being physical,” Steele said. “They’ve made a lot of progress. Are they there yet? No, but we don’t play until the start of September so we’ve got plenty of practices left to keep building.”
Steele has been around the game for more than 20 years as a defensive coach and he knows when he sees good instincts, and this group has them, he said.
“I know there was not a lot of game experience there but they’re instinctive, they’re playing physical, they’re quarterbacking the defense,” Steele explained. “They’re doing the things asked of them. We’ve got a chance up front, with as many guys as we’ve got, playing linebacker behind group A and group B at different places can be difficult. That’s a pretty good group that they’re playing behind and (defensive line coach) Rodney (Garner) has really got them playing better each day.
“They’ve got a long way to go, again, coaches’ cliche. That affects the linebacker play and I think the guys feel comfortable in, ‘Hey, trust the defense. Just do your job.’ They’re doing that so they’ve progressed pretty nicely. The thing that always worries you before you know going in is what kind of instincts does a guy have. Until you’ve coached one you really don’t know if they have good instincts, and if you’ve got good instincts at linebacker you’ve got a chance.”
Scouting Auburn A-Day
Names to know: Tre’ Williams, DeShaun Davis, Darrell Williams
What to expect: Williams is, by far, the best linebacker on the roster this spring. Frost and McKinzy, who both exhausted their eligibility in the Birmingham Bowl, say Williams will not only be the leader of the linebackers, but he will also lead the entire defense. Williams has to not only improve, but he needs to make the players around him better. All eyes will be on Williams Saturday at A-Day as the Tigers try to improve and show that this inexperienced linebacker group is more disciplined than the previous group when it comes to gap assignments.
Final verdict: This group may get an incomplete grade when the spring ends because the lineup you see Saturday will likely not last through August. Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal arrives on campus May 18 and should compete immediately for the starting job at middle linebacker. Auburn will likely go with a 4-2-5 look, meaning versatility is needed at linebacker in a playbook that may not necessarily require three “true” linebackers on the field at all times. Some of that has to do with depth, but mostly it’s because of the strengths up front and in the secondary.
Previously: Defensive line should shine at A-Day