AUBURN, Ala. — Heading into the second year under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Auburn’s linebackers have been able to take a deep breath.
Returners are back in place. Players know the verbiage. Circumstances are familiar after years of coaching transitions.
“I feel like everybody on the defense is comfortable,” linebacker Darrell Williams said. “Over the past couple years, there’s been a lot of moving around, so I feel like everyone staying with that one defense and building on top of that, everyone feels good.”
Yet as much as Auburn’s linebacking unit is enjoying the now and is hopeful for the future, they’re also somewhat stuck in the past. And for a group that rarely lacks motivation, that’s a great place to be.
Entering 2016, the group, with the exception of Tre’ Williams, was unproven. The outside perception was there was reason to be concerned about the unit, especially under first-year linebackers coach Travis Williams.
“Yeah, we always go back to the time when everybody was saying we didn’t have linebackers, none of us had any playing time but Tre’,” Darrell Williams said. “Even situations like that, we don’t even listen to that because people doubted us and we always take ourselves back to when people thought we weren’t going to be anything, and just another one of those linebackers crews.”
But they weren’t an ordinary squad. Now, vivid memories of being underestimated leading up to last season’s home opener with Clemson are shaping the goals for 2017.
“The mindset is to be better than we were last year, to be one of the best linebacker corps in the nation,” Montavious Atkinson said. “We have to set the standard higher than it was last year.”
The group holds itself accountable. The players want desperately to earn individual awards that have eluded Auburn players (All-SEC, All-American) since the early 2000s — the days Travis Williams was a player.
So every day when the Tigers linebackers enter the meeting room or head to practice, their position coach reminds them about past criticism and what people “are probably still saying this year.”
“We haven’t shown anything,” Travis Williams said. “We’ve gotten better, but we have a long ways to go.”
The goal, Travis Williams reiterates, is to stack practices. One good day isn’t enough. The best linebackers want to follow a good day with a great day and keep that pattern going.
It’s easy for college football players to get complacent, especially in the year following a defensive turnaround like the one that occurred when Steele took over. But Travis Williams has no intentions of letting his linebackers approach that head space.
The coach jokes that once his players achieve what he did — All-SEC honors in 2004 and 2005, team leader in tackles during its undefeated season and two seasons with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons — they can tune him out. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll stop nagging them to chase greatness.
“And even once you are an All-American, I’m going to bite on you even more,” Williams said. “So, it’s just we have fun with it, they know it’s a standard. We’re dreaming. We’re big dreamers in our room. We have goals as a group we’re trying to reach.”