AUBURN — More than once this spring, Gus Malzahn described K.J. Britt as the player who is “taking over that Deshaun Davis role” on Auburn’s defense.
That’s true in a lot of ways. Davis spent the past three seasons as the team’s starting middle linebacker, serving as both the quarterback relaying the calls from the sideline and a leader that players rallied behind. Britt, a rising junior, has spent the past two seasons playing behind Davis and is expected to take over that starting role from him.
But Britt doesn’t feel like he has to become a leader; he feels like he already is and has been in his football career ever since he was in middle and high school. This is just his first chance to be that player for the Tigers.
“Deshaun led the pathway,” the junior said after recording a pair of tackles on A-Day this past Saturday. “He was a great leader. But I feel like I have always had leadership roles, and I just want to embrace my leadership role. I can’t run everything like he did, and so try to have it my own way.”
Britt has some big shoes to fill. All of Auburn’s linebackers do. Not only are they replacing Davis; they’re replacing fellow multi-year starters Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson, too. Linebacker is the only level of the defense that doesn’t return a single starter. The line returns three, and the secondary four.
Davis (a first-team All-SEC selection as a senior), Williams and Atkinson combined to total 231 tackles and 23 tackles for loss last season. The four primary players position coach Travis Williams is turning to in their stead — Britt, junior Chandler Wooten, sophomore Zakoby McClain and five-star true freshman Owen Pappoe — have combined to total just 49 tackles over the course of their collective college careers.
That might be a concern had the Tigers not been in this exact spot just three years ago, when they lost Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy going into the 2016 season and faced a litany of questions about who would fill in for them. Williams and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele turned to a junior reserve, two players who spent most of the 2015 season on special teams, and one converted safety:
Tre’ Williams, Darrell Williams, Davis and Atkinson, respectively.
“It worked out really well,” Malzahn said. “So we feel the same way. I know Travis is really excited about his bunch showing what they can do. We’ve got some guys that can play.”
There’s a feeling around the program that those guys might have even more potential than the players they’re replacing, even if they do lack the experience. Take Britt, for example — the 6-foot, 236-pound Oxford native recorded only 27 tackles in 27 games over the past two seasons playing behind Davis, but he was a four-star recruit ranked No. 15 nationally coming out of high school
“He’s been waiting on this moment,” Malzahn said. “He is some kind of physical. He’s really leading that group.”
Wooten, who came to Auburn as a three-star recruit in the same class as a Britt, had long been looked at as the heir apparent to Darrell Williams, but has actually been playing with Britt in the middle of the defense this spring along with redshirt freshman Michael Harris.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound, Acworth, Ga., native suffered a knee injury on A-Day, but Auburn Undercover reported Monday that he is only expected to miss about a month of offseason workouts.
“We don’t have any returning starters, and I actually feel like that gives us an advantage,” said Wooten, who has totaled 18 tackles over 17 career games. “Everybody doesn’t know what we have to offer. So I just feel like, right now, we’re going to move silent, but worry about business and continue to get better every single day,”
McClain certainly seems to have done that. The former four-star recruit out of Valdosta, Ga., is the smallest of the group at 6 feet, 210 pounds, but he appeared in all 13 games as a freshman last season (recording four tackles) and has had a strong spring by all accounts.
If Britt is the next Davis, then McClain is the next Travis Williams, who was similarly undersized during his playing days on the Plains from 2001-05 but possessed the same quickness.
“He’s that South Georgia, Valdosta, tough. He’ll fight a chainsaw,” the coach said of McClain said last fall. “He just has natural instincts as a linebacker.”
And then there’s Pappoe, who really has no comparison. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Lawrenceville, Ga., native is a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 1-ranked outside linebacker in the 2019 class and the highest-ranked Auburn linebacker signee since Tray Blackmon in 2005. He totaled 121 tackles as a senior at Grayson High and has garnered strong reviews from teammates after enrolling early.
The Tigers typically rotate four linebackers between two spots on the field in their nickel defense, and the freshman looks like he will almost certainly be one of them along with Britt, Wooten and McClain.
“I believe we’re really athletic, I believe we can run sideline to sideline. We’re really eager to learn,” Britt said. “The potential is going to be really great, because we want to get better. It’s something I’m going to be eager to see. I wish I could fast forward to watch a game with just us playing right now, just to see how good we’re going to be.”
They’re not the only ones — they have already made believers out of their predecessors.
“They have a lot of potential, man. I know coach T-Will is going to get them to exceed that potential,” Davis said. “Before I left, I told those guys, ‘there’s no pressure.’ Coach Steele, when he first got the job, they questioned us. They wondered if, the three guys that just left, were we good enough? I feel like we produced at a high level for three years. So there’s no pressure on those guys. I know there’s going to be some talent that comes in that room.”
Britt aims to lead it.
“I thought I was born with leadership qualities,” he said. “It’s just something that I’ve always tried to do throughout middle school, throughout high school. It’s just something I’ve always picked up. I can’t even really explain leadership. I know leadership in the dictionary means influence, so I just try to influence people by what I’m doing.”