June 16, 2024

Senior LB trio looks to leave Auburn on top

AUBURN, Ala. – Deshaun Davis knows this is it for the three seniors in the linebacker room. They only have so many games and so many practices remaining where they get to wear the Auburn jersey because once it comes to an end, it’s over. There’s no getting it back.

At the first home game this season, Davis recorded a video of Tiger Walk knowing that it will be his last “first Tiger Walk” of his Auburn career.

“It’s scary because our time at Auburn is winding down,” Davis said. “We won’t get those days back. There will never be another fall camp. We’ll never have to go through a winter workout or anything like that. Our games in Jordan-Hare are winding down.

“It’s a good feeling also because this is what we’ve worked for. To have the chance to put ourself in position to enter the NFL draft and have a chance to have a well-rounded team that can compete for championships and be one of the top defenses in the country and be one of the best linebacker corps in the SEC and in the country.

“Everything that we’ve always wanted is right in front of us.”

Nobody expected the trio of Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson to get to this point. They have been undersized or underrated their whole lives. What’s stopping them from still competing for a championship, being one of the best linebacker groups in the country and one day playing in the NFL?

It’s only fitting that their position coach gave them the nickname, “Three the hard way.”

“With three seniors, we’re coming hard,” Williams said. “Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to win, whatever it takes to get the job done, that’s how we’re coming.”

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‘Smarter than everyone else’ 

Davis might not fit the mold of a prototypical NFL linebacker. He’s not 6-foot-3 and he’s not likely going to run a 4.4 or 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. But for the NFL teams who came last week to scout LSU’s Devin White, Davis gave them somebody else to think about as he finished with a game-high 13 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack and two quarterback hurries.

“I would take Deshaun Davis tomorrow,” Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams said. “I know what I’m getting. He’s a football player, and he has a great football IQ.

“He’s going to run a 4.6 every day of the week, and he’ll be 5-11 every day of the week. But he’s a heck of a football player, and I think he’s done a great job of playing with that chip on his shoulder. He’s a linebacker and the type of kid that Auburn has been built on. He’ll play in the NFL. He’s just so smart. His football IQ is off the charts.”

Davis arrived at Auburn a year before his position mates, Williams and Atkinson, with little to no fanfare. He was a three-star recruit who redshirted his first year and saw only a handful of snaps as a freshman in 2015.

That all changed in 2016 when new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele took over and realized there weren’t many other options at linebacker on the roster. Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy had both moved on the season before. So when Auburn opened against Clemson that season, Davis made his first start because there wasn’t anybody else.

“If you remember, the [linebackers] we’re playing with now – put Tre’ Williams with them and that’s all we had,” Steele said. “So you’ve got to become a good player.”

Davis made five tackles, hurried the quarterback twice and broke up a pass in that Clemson game. Since then, he’s started every game for the Tigers and had 150 career tackles coming into this season. Through the first three games this year, he leads the team with 24 tackles.

“I’m not a 6-3 linebacker,” Davis said. “And I’m not going to run a 4.5. Knowing football, knowing the game and knowing the NFL, I’m pencil-whipped already.

“So how I’m going to stay in the room is me doing my job, me knowing the game and just being smarter than everyone else around me. If you run a 4.5 and say I do run a 4.6 or a 4.7. If I know where the ball is going before you do, it’s going to look like I ran a 4.4. You don’t have to be extremely fast. You just have to be fast enough.”

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‘A Sunday talent’

Davis wasn’t the only sophomore linebacker to start that Clemson game in 2016. Williams also earned his first career start in that game – partly out of necessity, but also because of his raw talent. Unlike Davis, Williams does look the part of an NFL linebacker.

“Darrell is a Sunday talent,” Travis Williams said. “I think Darrell has a chance to potentially be drafted high. When scouts come, they ask about all three guys. But they’re very high on Darrell Williams. He’s earned that because of his skill set. He’s long. He can rush the passer. He’s probably our best pass-rusher in the room. He can cover. He’s just so valuable.”

Williams came from high school powerhouse Hoover where he won back-to-back-to-back state championships. He was a top-200 recruit who also played in the Under Armour All-America game that year, and he turned down an offer from Alabama to come to Auburn.

But as good as he’s been his first three years on campus, the senior has taken his game to another level this season – knowing that it will be his last.

“There’s a big sense of urgency,” Williams said. “It’s your senior year. It means more to you. It’s sad that it’s like that, but it is. Once you get to this moment you’re like, ‘Dang, where’d the time go?’ Now we’re just cherishing every moment that we have together. We’re realizing that the time is ticking and we don’t have too much longer together.

“There’s urgency on the field as far as we have to get the job done. But outside of that, it’s just cherishing the moments we have left together.”

Williams also knows this will be his last opportunity to win a championship at Auburn. He’s been winning all his life and doesn’t feel like he’d be complete if he didn’t win a championship in college. Despite the loss to LSU, he’s confident this team can still accomplish that goal.

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‘100 percent guy’

Davis made a name for himself with his play and his vocal personality. Williams did it on athleticism and talent. But “three the hard way” wouldn’t be complete without the third member of the group – Atkinson.

Until this season, Atkinson hasn’t been a regular starter. He doesn’t go get 10 tackles a game. And though he might be the most versatile player on the defense, he doesn’t get the recognition that he probably deserves. But through work ethic and an unselfish attitude, he’s carved out a significant role on this Auburn team and earned his teammates’ respect in the process.

“I’ve been an under-the-radar guy my entire life,” Atkinson said. “It doesn’t really bother me. It just lets me know to come in and work hard. Just focus on getting my craft right every day so I can become that main guy one day.”

Atkinson has earned the respect of his coaches, too, in particular his position coach.

“He’s full of energy just like me,” Travis Williams said. “He runs to the ball. His running to the ball, his hustle, he does it so much to where it’s like normal to us now. But if somebody came and watched us practice, it would be very abnormal. His effort is crazy. He’s the ultimate competitor – in the weight room, he wants to win every race. He’s tough. He would fight a chain saw. He’s not scared of nothing. I love everything about him.”

That competitive spirit, it never goes away. His teammates call Atkinson the “100 percent guy” because it doesn’t matter if he’s playing football, lifting weights, playing video games or even playing cards, he’s going to give 100 percent every time.

“100 percent is all I know,” Atkinson said. “Even if I’m doing it wrong, I just taught myself to give it all that I’ve got no matter what.”

As a senior, Atkinson would love nothing more to finish with a championship. But he also wants a little recognition – not for him personally but for the group. When this trio first started playing together in 2016, they always wanted to be the best linebacker corps in the nation. Two years later, that’s still the goal. That’s still how they want to leave Auburn.

“We just want to be, if not the best, one of the best linebacker corps in the nation,” Atkinson said. “I feel like I’ll have accomplished something if we did that.”

 

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