With SEC Media Days underway, sports reporter Zach Tantillo will dive into the Auburn players in various position groups that have the greatest chance for a breakout season in 2019 with the new “Bound to Break Out” series.
Today’s edition of Bound to Break Out focuses on the players who can emerge from the linebacker position, a position group that was depleted after losing three seniors from last year’s unit.
Outside of the ongoing quarterback battle, the position group with the biggest question mark is the linebacker position.
The loss of three senior, multi-year starters that are credited with revamping the perspective of Auburn linebackers in Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson is sure to be felt next season.
The new group having to step into those vacant slots have been receiving hype as a group that could not only continue the success at linebacker but improve it, as well.
With a whole new starting group, the Auburn linebacking core is in need for a few players to have a breakout season.
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First up is the player who will be replacing the heart of the Auburn defense, Auburn’s leading tackler for the last two seasons and All-SEC linebacker Deshaun Davis.
That player is junior linebacker KJ Britt.
Britt has been backing up Davis for the past two seasons and has been groomed to take over the middle linebacker spot once Davis took his talents to the next level. Not only does Britt assume the responsibility of filling in as a starter, but he has taken over the mantle as a leader on the Auburn defense.
“Deshaun led the pathway. It ain’t really what I had to do,” Britt said. “I just came in and like I said, it wasn’t like we started from zero. We already started on the up and up, I’m just trying to make sure I’m holding up the tradition. Deshaun, 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.”
During his first two seasons Britt has seen action in 27 games, mostly contributing as a starter on special teams, while backing up Davis on defense. His hard-hitting, run-stopping style of play at 6’0, 236 pounds has garnered him the nickname “Downhill Britt.”
As a hard-nosed player, Britt does not shy away from contact, but just because he is a physical player, does not mean he does not have the brains to run the defense like Davis once did.
“As a middle linebacker at Auburn we’ve got to make sure the front is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and we got to make sure of the backend,” Britt said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. The quarterback is really underrated. You’ve got to be the eye in the sky. You’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Being a linebacker, if something busts, I just feel like that’ll be on me because I didn’t communicate well enough with the backend or I didn’t get two eyes on the three-technique quick enough.
“I really take pride in that. It’s not like leadership, but we really are the voice on the field, making the calls, recognizing formations, little things, little nuggets. There’s stuff in the backend that safeties can’t see that we can see and there’s stuff that D-linemen can’t see that we can see. We always try to help each other. I just believe what attract people to middle linebacker is the voice that we play with the role that we play, just try to quarterback the defense.”
Primarily focusing on the offense this season, head coach Gus Malzahn has noticed Britt’s smooth transition into the starting role and as the new quarterback of the defense.
“It feels like the guys have just stepped in and haven’t missed a beat,” Malzahn said. “I think overall, they’ve had a very good spring and K.J. Britt has been leading that group and has really taken over for Deshaun Davis. It’s his moment and he’s been waiting for this moment. He is really physical and has really improved.”
Despite assuming the starting role, Britt has not been complacent with his new role on the team.
“No, no, I’m hungry, man. I don’t know I’m the guy,” Britt said. “I don’t know nothing. I’m just playing. I can’t get caught up with the media. I’ve just got to play, strap it up like the next man. Somebody is always doing something to out-do me. I’m always trying to take the next step. I’m hungry to get better. I’m not just trying to stay here, I’m trying to maximize my potential.”
Since stepping on campus as an early enrollee, Pappoe has been turning heads and raising eyebrows with his impressive play and his determination to absorb every bit of knowledge he can, impressing both his coaches and his teammates.
“He’s learning, he’s really learning,” Britt said. “He’s really picking it up faster than I did when I was a freshman. Everybody knows he has the athletic ability, can run and jump and all that stuff. He’s learning how to play in the box. From day one, you can already see a progression. He’s really getting better. I can’t wait to watch him.”
At 6-foot-1, 219 pounds, Pappoe is on the smaller end for a linebacker but his sideline-to-sideline quickness is not often matched by other linebackers. His ability to fly to the ball no matter the location, helped him record 121 tackles and 14 TFL as a senior for at Grayson High School in Georgia.
Pappoe’s impressive spring was capped off with his first taste of live action on the college level during Auburn’s A-Day spring game where he picked up four tackles and one quarterback hit on the day.
“He’s come on,” Malzahn said. “He doesn’t act like a freshman and the moment is not too big for him. He can really run, he has really good instincts and I think he had a really good spring, especially for a freshman.”
As Auburn’s biggest signing of the 2019 class – with being ranked as a five-star linebacker and ranked as the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker by both ESPN and 247Sports – Owen Pappoe has the best chance out of any incoming freshman on the defense to have a breakout year.
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