Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com
It's hard to believe Tre Williams is about to play his senior season.
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That's usually said about a fifth- or sixth-year player who still has eligibility remaining, but Williams is entering his fourth season. A "regular" senior. So what's surprising about this kid's trajectory?
He's not a star. At least not yet.
Williams, after all, was a five-star recruit out of St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile as a freshman in 2014. That ramped up college expectations. Auburn supporters were expecting a revelation, a new version of Takeo Spikes, a dominator capable of emasculating any ball-carrier who dared enter his area.
Williams instead has been more of a reliable collaborator at Auburn — starting just 10 of the team's 39 games during that period. That's misleading insofar as the linebacker has been slowed by various ailments along the way, most notably a nagging ankle problem last season, and those physical obstacles have hampered his availability to a significant degree.
Still, the Mobile native finished second on the team in tackles last season (67) despite missing two games entirely. After working on the weak side earlier in his career, Williams worked primarily at middle linebacker in 2016 and results were excellent. He emerged as a vocal leader both on and off the field, which defensive coordinator Kevin Steele credits as a big reason for the defense's improved play. Williams also played with more aggression and proximity allowed him to work in close quarters without constantly fighting off second-level defenders.
He was effective. He became a difference-maker.
Now Williams has a chance to build upon a strong junior season. He's now firmly entrenched at the middle ("Mike") spot — Deshaun Davis is expected to work outside exclusively — and he's now in position to make the 2017 defense his own. Williams has the personality, the experience and, now, the resume to assume a primary leadership role. His understated personality meshes well with Steele's similarly understated personality. That creates a certain synergy that's difficult to quantify yet critical to the defense's ability to adjust in real time.
The key for Williams will be an injury-free season. If he finally gets through an entire season unscathed, he'll match many lofty expectations of yesteryear.
ON THE UP SIDE: Tackling, consistency, strategic awareness, leadership
ON THE DOWN SIDE: Explosiveness, overall effect, injury-prone
VOTING RESULTS: Bryan Matthews (8th), The Bunker (8th), Jeffrey Lee (12th), Jay G. Tate (16th)
2016 RANKING: No. 12
POSTSCRIPT: Why did I rank Williams so low relative to the other panelists? It's based on feel, not statistics. He doesn't affect games as much as expected. Guys like Marlon Davidson, Mon Adams, Deshaun Davis, Tray Matthews, Carl Lawson more frequently made plays that gave Auburn a clear advantage during a particular snap or drive. Several times last season I thought Williams had a poor game only to realize afterward that he'd finished with four or five tackles. I feel like Davis and Darrell Williams are more savage hitters, which is required from linebackers in a 4-2-5 system. Leadership and maturity matter, however, and Tre Williams has both traits. He's always been a level-headed, introspective person who sees things on a different plain relative to players his age. If Tre Williams stays healthy, he'll be a cog — and a Top 10 player without a doubt.
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