Auburn linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Travis Williams knows a thing or two about being a leader, having served as the on-field commander on one of the best defenses in program history, the 2004 squad that helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season.
So it's no small praise when he points out the leadership qualities he sees in mike linebacker K.J. Britt, who is set to take over, along with Chandler Wooten, Deshaun Davis' role as the director of the Auburn defense.
"Natural born leader, natural born linebacker, great family — you can tell he was raised right," said Williams of Britt. "The stuff K.J. does is stuff the fans will never see. He and T.D. (Moultry) are like brothers. He’ll take T.D. home and he and T.D. go to church—T.D. got baptized at his church. (Tyrone) Truesdell is another one —(Britt) taught Truesdell how to drive. He takes Truesdell home all the time and they go to the same church. I’m talking he’s a natural leader. He’s special. … He’s a kid that when he leaves as an Auburn man, he’s going to be one where you say, ‘Ok, I remember K.J. Britt. Like, he was a great player but K.J. Britt was a great person.’”
He's also earning the trust and respect of his fellow teammates, however begrudgingly.
"I still try to tell him that it's my team," said end Marlon Davidson with a smile at the beginning of fall camp. "I always throw that in there. But K.J., he's an alpha, and every day he's going to be the alpha."
Britt has patiently awaited his turn in the spotlight after serving as a backup to Davis the past two years. He picked up valuable experience last season, seeing action in every game and picking up 23 tackles.
He's locked in a battle with Wooten for the starting middle, or "Mike," linebacker spot, what Williams calls "the most important position on the field" and the "quarterback for the defense."
"You talk about quarterback battle, I got two linebackers in Chandler Wooten and K.J. Britt battling it out," said Williams. "That middle linebacker has to be a guy that communicates, has to be a guy that if a defensive lineman is not in their gap, you got to get down in there and slide them in their gap."
Britt calls the battle with his roommate Wooten a "natural competition" that they've been doing all along .
"That’s my brother. He motivates me; I motivate him. We just want to play. We were friends from high school and friends all the way up to this point," said Britt. "That’s my roommate, so we talk at night, watch film together, talk ball together."
Williams praised the versatility of Wooten, who has experience playing outside linebacker, or the "Money" position.
"We’re trying to find that person that can quarterback. We have a good deal where the Mike can be Chandler Wooten or K.J.," said Williams. "Chandler Wooten has experience at Money, he can go to Money, he was our Sam last year when we were in our 4-3 so he’s very versatile.”
Competition continues for the whole position group, with Zakoby McClain and true freshman Owen Pappoe battling for the starting spot at the Money position.
Williams praised the toughness McClain brings to the position and how much progress he has made.
"If you go into an alley fight, I’m taking Zakoby," he said. "That kid there, man, just South Georgia tough. He can just naturally unlock his hips on tackles — he throws his body all over the place. Like ‘Man, you got a rubber band body.’ Doesn’t really get banged up, loves football."
Pappoe, who enrolled early in January and went through spring practice, also earned his fair share of praise from Williams, who said the true freshman's ability to get from point A to point B really fast stood out to him, as well as the approach he takes to the game.
"(He’s) very serious about his craft — he really wants to be great. He doesn’t smile much, he’s serious but he’s serious on and off the field, he’s just a kid who’s very focused," he said. "We knew he could run fast, jump high, all of that stuff. That’s why we recruited him. He’s not here because he runs slow. But, what’s impressive is how focused he is and how locked in he is. He’s about his business."
Williams added that Pappoe is rotating positions and that "he hasn't blinked" as coaches are throwing a lot at him.
"It’s going to be good to see his growth and just kind of see what he grows into."
Regardless of who wins what starting jobs, all four linebackers are expected to get extensive reps against Oregon and throughout the season.
The talented depth the Tigers have at linebacker bodes well for the defense, which Britt said is "really ready" to get on with the season.
"We’re just trying to find the little things that could be a weakness and strengthen it," he said, adding that he thought the defense took a step forward in winning third downs over the offense. "Winning third down was something we did all fall camp.
"We put a big emphasis on stopping the run and winning third down."
Redshirt freshman linebackers Michael Harris and Josh Marsh are "coming along," said Williams, who added that the two will contribute on special teams this season.
"We need guys that are able to contribute. That’s a very important phase of the game that a lot of people don’t look at. We need guys that are able to run down on kickoff and help us there and continue to develop while you’re doing it," he said. " "That’s what K.J. did for the last two years. Zakoby was on kickoff last year and Wooten was on special teams. That’s their way of getting their feet wet and getting some snaps in the game as well."