A pretty reliable predictor of success for a college football team is a combination of talent and experience. Really, any organization, business or team would love to have “talented and experienced” be an accurate description of their personnel. The linebacker room that the Auburn coaching staff has put together in 2020 fits that profile.
Linebackers’ coach Travis Williams brings back K.J. Britt, Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain as proven players and signed two highly touted freshmen to add to the mix.
Today, we look at the most productive returning player, a talented newcomer and a wildcard in the linebacker position group. If the following players’ seasons meet expectations, Auburn may have the best linebacker unit in college football.
Most Productive Returning Player – K.J. Britt, 33, Sr.
Key 2019 Stats – 69 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 Forced Fumble
K.J. Britt earned a nickname at Auburn before he earned a starting job. Coach Travis Williams began calling a young linebacker from Oxford, AL “Downhill Britt” in 2017. It is usually evident on the first drive of the game why Mr. Britt has been given that moniker. Britt is a classic example of someone who arrives on the scene with the intention to run through the ball carrier.
K.J. waited his turn behind Auburn captain Deshaun Davis for two seasons. Last year when he was called on to start at linebacker, K.J. earned first-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Britt had the opportunity to leave school early and pursue a career in the NFL, but he chose to return for his final season.
The leadership, effort and tenacity that Britt displays helps set the tone for Auburn on the defensive side of the ball. If Britt can clean up a few missed tackles and improve in pass coverage, he is likely to have an amazing season for the Tigers and set himself up to hear his name called early in the next NFL draft. Expect him to do just that in 2020.
Talented Newcomer – Wesley Steiner, 32, Fr.
Key 2019 Stats – Under Armour All-American, 93 tackles, 6.0 TFL
Auburn has a strong claim to the top linebacking corps in the SEC. If Chandler Wooten had not opted out of the upcoming season, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. But, with Wooten stepping away for the season, there are now critical snaps that must be taken by someone else.
That is where the uber-athletic Wesley Steiner could step into the spotlight. The freshman from Warner Robins, GA, has legitimate 4.5 speed and a 40-inch vertical leap. That kind of athleticism should allow Steiner to close on a running back between the tackles or run down a receiver from the slot to the sideline.
At the very least, Steiner should be an impact player on special teams. If the true freshman can grasp the defensive concepts quickly, his name could be at the top of the list to get into the rotation with K.J. Britt, Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain.
Wildcard – Zakoby McClain, 9, Jr.
Key 2019 stats – 55 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 Forced Fumbles, 1 INT
Zakoby McClain really needs no introduction. He led Auburn with 11 tackles in last season’s Iron Bowl. Oh, and you may also remember him in that same contest sprinting 100 yards to return an interception for a touchdown after a pass in the endzone ricocheted off Alabama’s Najee Harris.
McClain was not the usual starter next to K.J. Britt in 2019 because true freshman wunderkind Owen Pappoe earned that spot. However, McClain actually ended the season with more tackles than Pappoe. It truly is a testament to the depth of this position group that a player of McClain’s caliber is not on the field every important snap.
McClain’s role is likely to increase even more this year since Chandler Wooten will not be participating in the 2020 campaign. Zakoby is not as large as most linebackers, so some gameplans may not feature him as frequently if the opponent’s attack is particularly focused on a bruising running game. But his dynamic athleticism and big-hitting style make him one of the most exciting players on the Tigers’ defense.
For other Auburn positional breakdowns:
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @z_m_shaw