With senior linebacker K.J. Britt sidelined due to thumb surgery, all eyes were on Auburn’s other linebackers Saturday in their first test without the team’s leading tackler.
While the performance wasn’t perfect, the group showed they were willing to do what was asked of them in order to keep the Tigers in contention.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn had previously named sophomore Owen Pappoe and junior Zakoby McClain as two players who needed to step up in Britt’s absence, and against the Razorbacks the duo delivered. McClain was Auburn’s leading tackler with 13 tackles to go with two quarterback hurries, while Pappoe followed close behind with 10 tackles and a sack.
Malzahn announced on Sunday that McClain and Pappoe each earned Auburn’s defensive helmet stickers for their play against the Razorbacks. For Pappoe, the linebackers’ collective play was the product of a mentality in which whoever is on the field has got to deliver.
“I honestly think we all stepped up. It wasn’t perfect, but due to the players we lost we all stepped up and did the best we could,” Pappoe said on Saturday. “(It’s) all hands on deck. We have the mentality of next man up. We were talking before the game like, ‘This one’s for KJ.’ We went out there and gave our all … We just have to keep being prepared for that, and I think we’ll be alright going down the line.”
McClain shared similar thoughts minutes after the Tigers finished off the dramatic 30-28 victory over the Razorbacks. The junior said he was confident entering the game because everyone wanted to show out, and he said linebackers coach Travis Williams’ mantra about each man doing his part has been ingrained into all of them.
As important as that mentality was for Pappoe and McClain, it was also on display by another defender who took snaps at linebacker. Zion Puckett usually handles nickelback duties — entering the field as Auburn’s additional defensive back in its nickel package — but with Britt out of the lineup he helped fill in the gaps in the second level of the defense.
Puckett held his own and ended the game with four tackles. For McClain, Puckett’s willingness to shift around on defense was by no means a surprise.
“On like Monday, I was like, 'Zion, you've got to play linebacker.' He said, 'I don't care. I'm glad to play anything. I'm a football player,'” McClain said. “I was happy he came out and he did something today.”
Auburn’s linebackers, along with the rest of the defense, didn’t play perfect by any means Saturday, especially in the second half when the Razorbacks got back in contention. They did, however, step up in a big way with the game on the line.
After Anders Carlson missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, the Auburn defense was in must-win mode, needing to get the ball back. Safety Jamien Sherwood and defensive lineman Daquan Newkirk got things started with two big hits to set up third-and-12 for Arkansas, and as soon as the play began Razorbacks quarterback Feleipe Franks raced to the left.
Franks had a long way to go, and McClain made sure he never even came close thanks to a sure-handed tackle eight yards short of the first-down marker. McClain’s tackle forced an Arkansas punt and set the stage for the final pieces of the Tigers’ two-point victory.
“On the quarterback draw, when I saw the quarterback had dropped back, then I saw something funky. I seen him run, and I sprinted hard to the right,” McClain said. “An O-lineman tried to block me. I don't like getting blocked, so I got off him quick. I tried to knock him out, but I couldn't get the lick I wanted to. But I hit him and he went down.”
McClain explained how hard it was to play without Britt, saying the senior would often tell the other linebackers how to react, where to be and how to make sure they had good footwork through their play. McClain said the defense played in honor of Britt, adding that the Tigers went hard throughout the game and handled their assignments play after play.
Saturday was Auburn’s first test without one of its best defenders, and although there were ups and downs it was one the linebackers ultimately passed. Having said that, those Tigers are not content with where they stand, as McClain explained just after securing another win.
“We've got to mature. We've got to grow up quick,” McClain said. “Coach T has always told us that everybody might not be here, so it's the next man up. The next man up has got to ball.”