Playing in a new scheme that utilizes his versatility and no longer hindered by injury, USC junior Leonard Williams is poised to be college football's premier defensive lineman in the coming season.
Williams returns as the Trojans' defensive leader from a 2013 campaign in which he recorded 73 tackles, five sacks, four quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. It was enough to earn Williams All-American recognition—and he did it all with a lingering shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.
Back at full strength and ready to lead USC's front seven, a group head coach Steve Sarkisian calls his team's strength, Williams said at Wednesday's Pac-12 media days session he's prepared for 2014.
"The coaches expect me to be more of a leader this year," Williams said. "Being able to be healthy affects that because I can be out there a lot more than I was last year [when] I had to step out a few plays because my shoulder was nagging me.
"I don’t feel any pain at all practicing or lifting weights," he added.
The surgery took Williams out of commission for the Trojans' spring season, which was also the team's formal introduction to Sarkisian and his staff.
"I'm blown away. He's in great shape," Sarkisian said.
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Sarkisian and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox may have yet to see the All-American defensive lineman at full strength since Williams is currently working out in player-run practices that prohibit coach attendance, but Sarkisian is well aware of Williams’ potential.
"I can only imagine Leonard at 100 percent of what he’s going to look like in the fall,” Sarkisian said.
While Sarkisian and Wilcox have yet to truly see what Williams can do, Williams credits USC strength coach Ivan Lewis for maximizing the lineman’s potential in the weight room—and the lineman’s efforts show.
Sarkisian estimated Williams’ current weight at 310 pounds. He played last season at 300 pounds, which on his conservatively listed 6’5” frame made blocking Williams a unique challenge for opposing offensive linemen.
"His body type is perfect," Arizona State offensive lineman Jamil Douglas said. "He’s a great player, great motor."
Williams certainly doesn’t mind mixing it up with the biggest and best blockers the conference has to offer. Hailing from Daytona Beach, Florida, Williams mentioned growing up in the heart of SEC country. And indeed, he brings some of the nastiness in the trenches often associated with the SEC to the West Coast.
Last year in former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 52 scheme, Williams primarily played tackle, lining up against opponents’ guards on the interior. He’ll continue to operate in the trenches in 2014, but Williams said Wilcox is introducing new wrinkles to the playbook that will see him play more end.
"I'm going to be lined up on the tight end a lot more," Williams said. "In a passing situation, I'd like to play in a 3-[point] technique. But in run downs, I'd rather play on the tackle and tight ends."
Wilcox similarly used Hau’oli Kikaha last season for Washington, lining him up on the end and interior depending on situations. Kikaha responded with 13 sacks, tied with Clemson’s Vic Beasley for third-most in the nation.
With Williams playing more end, expect him to improve upon his 12.5 tackles for loss last season. Williams should also be more of a threat to sack opposing quarterbacks, like in his freshman season when he recorded eight. All the while, he'll remain central to the Trojans' run-stopping efforts.
It's a full plate, but nothing Williams can't handle.
Last season, he led USC in total tackles—an almost unheard-of accomplishment for a defensive tackle.
Surely the possibility of opponents double-teaming Williams could limit his statistical output, and Williams recognizes it.
Wilcox’s shifting of him from end to tackle is in part designed to keep offenses guessing, thereby eliminating some of the potential for double-teaming. But the talent surrounding Williams should keep opponents from being able to focus too much attention on the All-American.
“I expected that I’ll be getting double-teamed a lot this year,” he said. “But we have a lot of guys coming. We have transfers Claude [Pelon] and Delvon [Simmons] here. Antwaun Woods is just a phenomenal player and guy. He’s a great leader this year, and he’s going to step up big time.”
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Williams also has plenty of support in a talented linebacker corps, featuring tackles leader Hayes Pullard. Williams said he’s been impressed with the development of Jabari Ruffin in the offseason.
Sarkisian and his staff are leaning on Williams to tie all the Trojans’ defensive potential together.
"Being a three-year starter, the coaches expected me to step up this year. We had a talk about it, and they told me I should start being more vocal.
"I guess I could say I’m a natural leader, but I’m more by example by working hard and showing them how to do it the right way," he added. "I’m not a vocal leader; I don’t like to hop on guys if they’re doing something wrong. I’d rather them see me doing it right and follow in my footsteps."
While Williams’ footsteps are quite difficult to follow, one quality fueling his success that can be infectious for the Trojans defense is his love for the game, as described by Sarkisian.
"When you watch Leonard play, he loves playing. He loves playing," Sarkisian said. "And he plays hard."
With a healthy shoulder and new responsibilities, that tenacious style should manifest in 2014 in Williams establishing himself as the nation’s top defensive lineman.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.