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Bucs fifth-round selection K.J. Britt has the ‘it’ and ‘hit’ factor

The Auburn middle linebacker “just looks like a football player,” coach Bruce Arians says.
Auburn linebacker K.J. Britt, the Bucs' fifth-round draft pick, participates in the first day of the team's rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center.
Auburn linebacker K.J. Britt, the Bucs' fifth-round draft pick, participates in the first day of the team's rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 15
Updated May 15

TAMPA — He delivered a microcosm of his prep career in one fell smack.

The Friday night footage — from a high end-zone vantage point — shows Oxford (Ala.) High senior middle linebacker K.J. Britt gravitate to his right as the Gadsden City quarterback takes the snap. Britt’s shuffle segues to a sprint as the quarterback looks to his left, then cocks his arm for a short screen pass to a receiver.

The receiver’s feet already are in the air as the ball and Britt converge simultaneously. As Britt rams his upper body into his foe’s solar plexus, the receiver backflips, landing on his stomach side as Britt struts away.

“It literally took the wind out of their sails,” recalls then-Oxford coach Ryan Herring, whose team won 22-10 en route to a breakthrough season. “The game was won and over when he hit that kid.”

A half-decade later, Herring remains adamant that Kenney Britt Jr. — vocal leader, vicious hitter and versatile talent — single-handedly flipped the fortunes of the Yellow Jackets program.

Oxford, 3-7, in Britt’s junior year, finished 10-1 that season. The program has won at least 10 games every year since, highlighted by a state title in 2019.

“He saved that program, I’m telling you,” insisted Herring, who now coaches in southeast Georgia. “One player saved that program.”

The reigning Super Bowl champs, by contrast, don’t require such a savior these days. The mantra involves repeating, not resuscitating, and the starting 22 is set. But the Bucs always will attempt to carve out space for character guys, consummate teammates and selfless forces of nature capable of dislodging molars.

Hence the reason they used a fifth-round selection on Britt, a self-taught musician, fledgling cook (his sauteed lambchops are to die for, according to his mom) and a football lifer who turns 22 next month.

“He’s a football player,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He just looks like a football player, he walks like one, he talks like one. He’s a captain. (We heard) glowing things about him at Auburn, and I have a lot of respect for that program.”

Linebacker K.J. Britt missed all except two games with torn thumb ligaments as an Auburn senior in 2020, but remained with the team, even accompanying the Tigers on road trips.
Linebacker K.J. Britt missed all except two games with torn thumb ligaments as an Auburn senior in 2020, but remained with the team, even accompanying the Tigers on road trips. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Few Tigers in the last couple of years commanded as much respect as Britt, a two-year starter, 2019 first-team coaches all-SEC pick and 2020 captain described as a “natural leader” by former Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams.

“He’s a kid that when he leaves as an Auburn man, he’s going to be one where you say, ‘Okay, I remember K.J. Britt,’” Williams told the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. “Like, he was a great player, but K.J. Britt was a great person.”

The oldest of two boys born to a registered nurse and corrections officer, Britt dabbled in other sports while growing up in Oxford (a small town in east central Alabama) and taught himself to play drums, guitar and keyboards as a member of the worship team at Emmanuel Temple Ministries.

But his prevailing passion was football, where he evolved into a four-star recruit while earning National Honor Society membership.

“When he was in high school, I remember thinking, ‘My lord, I want to be like him when I grow up,’ and I was 40 years old,” said Herring, who watched Britt total 124 tackles as a senior. “When I say special, I mean special.”

His breakthrough at Auburn occurred two seasons ago, when he totaled 69 tackles, including 10 for loss for a 9-4 Tigers squad that knocked off then-No. 5 Alabama at home. But he arguably left his most profound impression the following year, when he missed the final nine games of his career with torn thumb ligaments.

Instead of opting out and embarking on draft preparations, Britt remained around the team, even traveling with it for the final three road games.

Tonia Britt said her son watched one road game (at South Carolina) from home, but couldn’t bear being apart from his peers.

“I’m a man,” Britt said Saturday morning, prior to the second day of the Bucs’ rookie minicamp. “So I’m going to do what I feel is best, and I felt like what was best is me just sticking around, doing what I was doing, trying to lead on and off the field regardless of the situation.”

Similarly, Britt appears to have quickly endeared himself to his newest teammates. When asked which of his fellow rookies seems to possess the biggest personality, center Robert Hainsey (the Bucs’ third-round pick) mentioned Britt.

“He’s always got a smile on his face,” said Hainsey, who participated with Britt in the Senior Bowl earlier this year. “Always lights up the room.”

Thing is, Tampa Bay’s linebacker room already is pretty lit. Britt seems to understand his odds of making the final roster are daunting, and that special teams excellence will be a prerequisite.

“We embrace it there at Auburn,” Britt said. “Most of the all-stars play special teams, that’s just the standard.”

Standard bearers seem to find their way onto final rosters.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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