New York Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams, who is in his third season as a pro, likes to think of himself as a sponge.
No, he’s not a guy who mooches off the goodness of others without giving something back in return.
Rather, he’s approached his professional career with an open mind and the attitude that, no matter how many games he plays, there is always room to learn something new.
“I’m still young and I’m still learning,” the soft-spoken Williams said in an exclusive interview. “I’m open to learn as much as I can from anyone willing to teach me.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about a guy’s ego,” he added. “We’re trying to win, so I’m not going to be arrogant about it when a teammate offers me advice. I’m going to take any advice I can get, and be happy that a teammate is taking the time to help me out.”
A Star in the Making
Williams’ NFL career has had its ups and downs thus far. A sixth-round draft pick in 2011, the 6’3”, 224-pound native from Riverview, Fla., was deprived of a rookie minicamp and of OTAs due to the NFL lockout.
When the lockout ended and Williams could report to the Giants' training facility, he thrust himself into learning as much as he could, as quickly as he could, aided by veterans like Michael Boley and Chase Blackburn.
Because he was so coachable, Williams, a college teammate of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul at South Florida, became an instant contributor in his rookie season.
That year, he played in all 16 regular season games and all four postseason games. Emerging as a coverage specialist, his final stats, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), saw him allow 51 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns, with five pass breakups and 61 tackles.
In addition to his work on defense, he finished with a team-leading 17 special teams tackles as a rookie.
Overcoming the Sophomore Jinx
In his second season, Williams seemed ready for an increased role on defense. However, he suffered a PCL injury that cost him six games in 2012 and which clearly affected his ability to run and cover when he did return. As a result, he finished with 30 tackles, one sack and two pass breakups.
Choosing to let his injury heal, Williams was projected to be the new starting weak-side linebacker for the 2013 season, especially after the team cut Boley in a salary-cap related move.
However, when it came time to participate in OTAs, Williams’ knee wasn’t still where he needed it to be in order for him to show people that his rookie season wasn’t a fluke.
“It was tough, especially with me coming to the league and seeing how dedicated the fans are,” he said of his physical struggles.
“I was getting letters from the fans who wanted to see me succeed, and I wanted to make them happy, but I really couldn’t at the time because my knee was bothering me.”
Instead of giving up, Williams bided his time, sitting out of the OTAs and the early part of training camp while working diligently in rehab to get himself right.
“Of course I wanted to be out there,” he said of his time on the sideline. “It was tough, but I knew my time was going to come and that I’d get my chance to come back.”
Claiming His Spot
While Williams was sidelined, Spencer Paysinger, an undrafted free agent who, like Williams, was part of the 2011 rookie class, stepped in and played well for the team.
However, as Williams’ knee became healthier, Paysinger’s snap count ultimately began to shrink in favor of his teammate.
In Week 8, when New York topped the Philadelphia Eagles, Williams’ ascension to the starting lineup was complete as he took all of the snaps at weak-side linebacker in place of Paysinger, who at the time was nursing a sore ankle.
“Our plan was for him to play some and Spencer to play some, but it was going pretty good for him,” New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, via Conor Orr of the Star-Ledger.
“Jacquian was playing really well. So why mess up a good thing?” Fewell added.
Williams played so well in that game, finishing with a 1.9 pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus that Fewell decided to stick with Williams as his starter.
And not a moment too soon either, as with a series of mobile quarterbacks on deck following that game, Williams’ athleticism and speed turned out to be a welcomed addition to the Giants defense.
“It’s always nice when you can matchup people and put them in positions to cover and do specific things,” Giants linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said last month of Williams.
“You see that around the league all over. You’re trying to get your guys in position to be successful and we were able to do that a little bit with Jacquian.”
The Beason Effect
Williams, in particular, was thrilled to have the two-time All-Pro Beason join the linebackers meeting room, especially after losing Blackburn and Boley this past offseason.
“The Giants always have great guys in this locker room, and I respect (general manager) Jerry Reese for the type of guys he bring in,” Williams said. “For me, the guys he’s put around me since I came here have provided structure, leadership and energy. I always said you need a vet linebacker that understands the position, and that’s Jon this year.”
Despite trying to learn the Giants defense, Beason hasn’t been shy about helping younger teammates like Williams learn the finer points of the game.
After one recent practice, Beason and Williams returned from the field with Beason so engrossed with explaining something to his teammate that it looked as though neither was aware that the media had been allowed into the locker room.
Williams smiled when asked about that occurrence.
“That’s Jon. He coaches everybody up. He gives everyone some type of advice. He’s a great guy,” Williams said.
While Williams wouldn’t go into specifics as to what specifically Beason has shared with him, he did offer the following:
“It means a lot to have a vet putting in the time to give me those little key points, like the breakdown of being a linebacker and how to recognize certain things and how to cover certain guys and how to play my technique better.”
Beason, who said he established an immediate bond with Williams not just because they are in the same meeting room but also because they both have roots in Florida, refused to take any credit for Williams’ growth as a linebacker.
“I don’t think I’ve made him better, but I have challenged him,” Beason said. “My message to him is, ‘Hey, you are a specimen—6’3”, long arms, so let’s play like it. Really go out there and focus on one individual play and just let people see your talent and effort.’”
As he does with all of his teammates, Beason encourages Williams to point out any deficiencies that might exist in his game.
“When we’re out there, I told him, ‘Look, if I see something, I’m going to call it out. If you see something, then you call it out,’” Beason said.
“Recently, there was a time in a game where I was worried about something else and I missed a check. So he said something, and that’s because we’re on that same page. We built a relationship outside of football, and I think now we’re communicating and we understand each other.”
As Williams continues to mature as a linebacker, Herrmann said that he sees the experience factor beginning to seep into Williams’ play to the point where the young linebacker isn’t taking as many gambles as he did as a rookie.
“I think he’s learning the nuances of the game, the nuances of coverage and covering people in man-to-man,” Herrmann said.
“You need to touch the oven and feel that it’s hot to learn not to touch it anymore and the same thing is true with Jacquian. You need to learn how to cover a guy and different nuances of routes and where he needs to be. The more he does it, the better he is going to be.”
Because of Williams’ growth and thanks to the addition of Beason, the linebackers, long regarded as the Achilles heel of the Giants’ defense, seem to be finally gaining some credibility.
As for Williams, he said he has no plans to stop learning the finer points of his craft, especially now that the unit has started to gel over the last few weeks.
“We still have some growing to do,” said Williams. “We have young guys and we have two vets—Jon is more of a vocal leader while Keith (Rivers) shows it more on the field—that we can learn from...At the end of the day, we’re coming together and we’re building unity. And we’re going to continue to learn from each other because that’s how you grow as a player.”