By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Joe Whitt remembers recruiting the undersized linebacker with a big heart.
He remembers bringing Travis Williams to Auburn.
"Lots of character, work ethic, his attitude, his honesty. He's just a great, great young man. I knew back then this guy was going to be successful."
Travis Williams has a chance to be just that at Auburn, all over again, as he embarks on his first spring as an Auburn linebackers coach, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Joe Whitt, his Auburn linebackers coach and still friend and advisor.
"He's an Auburn man," Whitt said. "But he was an Auburn man when he came here because he stood for the things Auburn stood for. He had all the right stuff."
Williams played linebacker at Auburn from 2002-05. He was an Auburn graduate assistant coach in 2010 and was on the staff the last two years as a defensive analyst. He helped coach the last two bowl games when other coaches left. Now, he's a full-time coach.
"It definitely feels right," Williams said. "It's crazy because you dream about a lot of stuff, and being back here was one of them. It's still kind of unreal. It's a blessing. Every day I come in here is I get on my knees and pray. Then I do my devotion. I'm very grateful to be here. I get it."
Whitt said Williams got it from the day he came to Auburn from Columbia, S.C., in 2001 on the way to a redshirt season and before he would go on to be an All-SEC linebacker. He led Auburn in tackles in 2004, and in the top three in 2003 and 2005. A hint of things to come: He won the Pat Dye Leadership Award for defense in 2004 and 2005.
Williams said he knows what being an Auburn guy is about.
"You hear it a lot. But I really live, breathe, sleep Auburn," he said. "I was an overachiever. Auburn gave me an opportunity, and I took advantage of the opportunity. This place changed my life. You say 'Auburn man'. I get it. I wear that. I want to represent that. I want the players to see me and say, 'That's what an Auburn man is.' I want to be that example. It's bigger than Xs and Os for me."
Williams is 33 now, and still looks as if he could play.
"I probably have a series in me," he says with a laugh. "I think the players see it. I'm high energy. I get after it. I coach how I played. I don't know any other way. I'm living proof that it works.
"I just didn't play the game. I was a student of the game as a player. I also learned under some great minds. You see that picture right there? That's Coach Whitt. I have my family picture, and I have Coach Whitt. If I can get even close to what he did, I think I'll be OK. Every time I walk in here I have this photo to remind me the level that he set. He's like a dad. He's my guy. He's the one who educated me on Auburn, and what Auburn is. He taught me how to be a man. Clean shaven. Tuck your shirt in. I was just a raw product from Columbia, S.C. He taught me more than football."
Williams said he wants to teach football the way he learned it.
"Everybody knows football. But at the same time it's how you teach it. My wife is a teacher, and I lean on her. As coaches, we're teachers. You try to learn different ways to teach. It's no different than a teacher at a school."
Williams teaches his linebackers in his meeting room. And then he takes it on the field.
"I coach them hard, I love them hard."
It's how he learned the game at Auburn.
"It's a mindset that we can do this. 'Can't' doesn't live here. Don't tell us we can't do something. And on top of that, 'I love you.' It has to be both. My guys know I love them. I get it. You have to have a balance. You have to care. All those guys have situations and problems.
"You go into a kid's house and you promise the parents you're going to take care of them, no matter what. We don't say we're going to take care of you if you make a hundred tackles. I'm going to take care of you no matter what, and I'm going to make sure you're going to get a degree.
"It's actually loving them as much as possible."
Auburn's spring football practice begins Tuesday and the Tigers must replace two long-time starting linebackers in Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Williams is ready with his group because "they're mine."
"I'm looking forward to it. Know what I told them? We're just going to go to work. We're going to walk silent and carry a big stick. That's the Joe Whitt way. I'm not telling them something I haven't experienced.
"We're going to be OK."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine