AUBURN, Ala. — Joe Whitt always knew that former Auburn linebacker Travis Williams would be a coach — he was too smart not to be.
In Whitt’s 24-year career on the Plains, he came across many talented Tigers. No one ever matched up to Williams.
“Really, he was the kid that had it all,” Whitt said. “He was high-energy, very energetic. Very smart, very dependable. He did things right. You could count on Travis to do things right, and he was one of our leaders from his sophomore year until he finished. He was not only a leader of the linebacker group but of the entire defense — period.”
The Auburn alum will have a chance to make his mark in Jordan-Hare Stadium from his former coach’s place on the sideline.
Whitt developed close relationships with his athletes, sprinkling compassion into his intense coaching style. He often told his players how much he cared about them. Through the years, Williams has used Whitt’s drills and expressions. He modeled his coaching philosophy to resemble Whitt’s.
“I’ve seen the ingredients (Whitt had), and I saw the actual finished product of the meal, so I know it works,” Williams said. “I’m so honest with them and up front with them, and that’s making us closer and closer and closer. Before they leave the meeting, I tell them I love them, and they say, ‘I love you, coach.’ When I say that, I tell my daughters I love them, so I’ll do anything for them. We just have a different bond.”
Williams remembers how important that bond was to his success.
As a sophomore in 2003, Williams helped Auburn finish fifth nationally in total defense. As a junior, he had 80 tackles in 13 starts. He played a critical role in Auburn’s 2004 undefeated season. Williams was named First-Team All-SEC by The Associated Press and earned the honor again the following year.
Williams stood out in other ways, too. His interest in the game was unmatched. Williams constantly asked Whitt why defensive schemes worked or failed.
Whitt helped shape Williams’ future. After graduation, Williams played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 and ’07. He eventually changed progressions, with the hope of influencing lives like Whitt did.
Williams was a graduate assistant at Auburn under Gene Chizik beginning in 2009. Williams then had stops at Northern Iowa and Creekside High School. He returned to Auburn in 2014, serving as an analyst for two seasons. Williams was the interim linebackers coach in the past two bowl games. In January, Gus Malzahn promoted Williams as the full-time linebackers coach.
Williams cares about his players off the field, too. He wants to ensure that they graduate and are prepared for life after football.
Sophomore linebacker Darrell Williams didn’t see much playing time last season. He thinks that will change in 2016 and cites Travis Williams as the catalyst.
“A lot goes out to coach Williams,” the sophomore said. “Because he’s really pushing us hard, and I feel like he wants me to be the best I can be just as much as I want to be the best I can be. That really helps me a lot in practice. I just keep getting better every day.”
Whitt is certain that Travis Williams will be successful.
“They aren’t going to have a problem knowing that Travis cares about them or that he’s not going to take anything less than the best they got,” Whitt said. “That’s what coaching is about. Getting a young guy to play better than they think they can, and in other cases getting them to live up to what they want to be. He will get them to play as good as they have ever played. He won’t leave any stones unturned. They will play with all they got, both mentally and physically. There’s no question about that.”
The first-year linebackers coach is weeks from finding out if his ideology will help produce wins on Saturdays. But through fall camp, Williams’ players recognized improvements and expressed appreciation for their coach.
“His character, his enthusiasm, it takes us a long way in practice,” Darrell Williams said. “He really gets us through practice every day, and he’s a good coach, especially for his first year. It feels like he’s been coaching forever.”