TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Quinnen Williams was eyeing an opportunity.
Once Alabama wrapped up its 2017 national championship run, Williams knew the Crimson Tide would lose All-American Daron Payne to the NFL draft. So he was on board when Alabama's coaches approached him about replacing Payne, a position switch that would require a move from edge defender to nose guard.
"At first I was like, 'I'm light. I'm small,'" said Williams, who was a rotational player last season at 6'4", 285 pounds. "But they told me not to worry about that and only focus on the technique. I was just really determined like, Bruh, I need to start. I worked my butt off."
That he did, turning himself into a 297-pound nose guard ("I'm 297 solid," he said) and one of the best defensive players in the country.
While he says he's content to blend into the Alabama system that routinely produces top NFL draft picks, particularly on defense, his stellar play is making that difficult.
"I really don't see myself as a star, though. I really don't," Williams said. "I feel like I'm just contributing and doing what I'm supposed to do."
He's already done enough that draft analysts and other pundits are mentioning him as a first-round pick in the upcoming April draft. If that were to occur, Williams would become the first Alabama player in the Nick Saban era to be selected that high after only starting for one season. He redshirted in 2016.
He's thought of that highly for a simple reason: Williams is grading out as the best defensive lineman in college football at 95.6, per Pro Football Focus. That's higher than Houston's Ed Oliver (93.4).
For perspective, Williams is grading higher at his position than teammate and sophomore sensation Tua Tagovailoa is at quarterback (92.8). Tagovailoa is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
Williams' 96.4 rating against the run is the best in the country. He's tied for third in the nation with 11 quarterback hits.
Saban is not surprised by Williams' emergence. "We felt like Quinnen was a really good athlete in high school," Saban said. "He weighed maybe 260 pounds or whatever, but we really liked his quickness, his athletic ability, his ability to run. Those are really the kind of guys that we like to look for."
Saban compares Williams to former Alabama All-American defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who's now with the Washington Redskins. Allen, Saban said, "was a little bit of an undersized guy when we recruited him."
But with that type of player, Saban said, "When they get a little bigger and stronger, they're still athletic—they still have the quickness."
Saban said Williams' work ethic has allowed him to make the leap from part-time player to major contributor. "He's played very consistent. ... He's got a great attitude. He's got good leadership qualities. He has worked hard to develop into being a very productive player."
Quincy Williams Sr., Quinnen's father, saw all this coming from his son, the second of his four children.
"His first play, he was playing defensive end," Williams Sr. recalled of Quinnen's youth football days. "He didn't know nothing about football. We just told him to go tackle the quarterback or the guy with the ball. From then on, that's all he knew: Tackle the quarterback or the guy with the ball."
Quincy Jr., Quinnen's older brother and a senior linebacker at Murray State, isn't surprised either, but he remembers seeing a different side of his little brother when they were younger.
"As a kid, he was kind of soft," Quincy Jr. said, laughing. "He always loved football, but he was the sensitive one. But when he got mad, he was 'mad.'"
Less than two years apart in age, the brothers competed at everything. For tackles. For who could make the most plays. They trained together. Everything was a competition.
There was also the friendly fighting with a twist as little brother quickly outgrew big brother.
"I would always boss him around," Quincy Jr. said. "With him being bigger than me, he would always try to size me up. We wrestled a lot."
The brothers talk or text after every game. They attend each other's contests on their respective bye weeks.
Quincy Jr. texts Quinnen words of encouragement before each game. Forever competitive, they have a running group-message thread with their two younger siblings (one sister, one brother) where they post their statistics and other highlights from each outing.
Quincy Jr. can only watch as a proud brother who anticipated this. "He always had the work ethic. He always had his mind straight," Quincy Jr. said. "I was just waiting on the moment that he would open up and show everyone what he can do."
In recent years, Alabama has recruited highly touted prospects, such as Minkah Fitzpatrick (2015) and Dylan Moses (2017), who have arrived ready to contribute as true freshmen. Williams, however, wanted and was granted a redshirt year in 2016. That season, he was routinely praised by older teammates for his work on the scout team.
Williams patterns himself after a blend of the three guys he watched the most while not playing. He wants to move like Allen, have the strength and power to take on double-teams and stop the run like Payne—a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins—and have the technique and hands of Dalvin Tomlinson, a second-round pick of the New York Giants.
"You can see flashes of everybody come out of me," Williams said. "Looking up to those three guys helped me and my play tremendously."
Williams gets a lot of praise for his quickness, but the use of his hands may be just as elite.
Teammates say Williams has violent hands. He likens it to being a ninja, gunslinger or boxer—the first to strike, draw or punch usually wins.
Drills done each day in practice with defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski hone those skills and create muscle memory. "Sometimes your hands do it before your mind even thinks about doing it," he said. "It's just natural."
Williams has produced highlights throughout the season, but his most memorable play came during Alabama's homecoming game against Missouri. Quarterback Drew Lock called for the snap, and before he could fully execute his play-action fake, Williams had essentially collapsed the pocket, pushing the left guard back two yards. Missouri's left tackle tried to help, but it was too late. Williams swim-moved back inside to sack Lock for a safety. The play perfectly showcased Williams' blend of power, quickness and technique.
There are photos from the Missouri game that show Williams already engaged with an offensive lineman before the snap hits Lock's hands. "I think we're honestly a little relieved as an O-line that we're like, OK, no one else can block him either," said Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams.
Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher said he "feels for opposing interior offensive linemen, for sure."
Jonah Williams elaborated on what makes Quinnen so difficult to block: "He's really good with his hands. ... That's the toughest thing ... you've got an almost 300-pound bar of soap that's pushing past you, and you just can't get ahold of him. I think that he's really perfected his hand technique."
Cole Cubelic, a former offensive lineman at Auburn and an SEC Network analyst, has studied the defensive line tape of Houston, Ohio State and Clemson, and he said Quinnen has been "the best defensive lineman in college football the first half of the season. What he does best is he makes you prepare for multiple facets of his game as opposed to just being a guy that's quick or just being a guy that can run you over. He has a little bit of everything."
The smile disappears for a moment, and Williams' body slumps a bit. It's still tough to speak about his mom's death, and it likely will be for the rest of his life.
"When my mom passed, we all took a big hit, but he took the biggest hit," said Quincy Jr. "He was kind of the momma's boy."
Williams' mother, Marquischa, died of breast cancer when he was 12, so October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a tough time for Williams. She was a five-year survivor, but the cancer returned and took the family's rock within months.
Marquischa was the disciplinarian in his life. She was a schoolteacher who stressed the importance of education. Williams leaned on his father, his grandmother, Yvarta Henderson, and other family and friends in the absence of his mother.
Yvarta sees a lot of her daughter in Quinnen. Always smiling. Excellent grades. Good character. He's laid-back and likes to joke with people he's comfortable with. Williams has several tattoos in remembrance of his mother, including one on his chest.
He doesn't want to talk about her death and said he tries not to think about it. But Williams is keeping her memory alive the only way he knows how: by working hard.
"If I don't feel like getting out the bed, I just think: If my momma was here, she'd make me get out of the bed. She'd make me go work out," Williams said.
That work ethic has taken Williams from a 247Sports 4-star prospect to being mentioned as a potential top-five pick in late April.
"I put him at No. 4 overall on my midseason draft board," said Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for The Athletic. "That's how well he's played."
B/R draft analyst Matt Miller agrees with the first-round assessment, ranking Williams at No. 10 overall among 2019 prospects.
It's a small sample size, but Brugler sees flashes of Gerald McCoy from when he dominated offensive lines and earned consensus All-American honors at Oklahoma. McCoy was selected No. 3 overall in the 2010 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"His diverse skill set really makes him a versatile guy that you can mix and match on your defensive line," Brugler said. "All 32 NFL teams are going to be interested in what he has to offer. It's not going to be a scheme-dependent issue. That's only going to help him whenever he does move on to the NFL."
Williams isn't ready to talk about his NFL future. Quincy Sr. said the two briefly spoke about it but agreed to table the discussion until after the season. Quincy Sr. wants Quinnen focused on playing well and getting his degree in exercise science, which is "first and foremost."
As NFL offenses venture further from traditional running games and more toward quick passing attacks, interior pass-rushers are becoming more valuable because the fastest way to get at the quarterback is a straight line.
Williams' ability to be an elite inside pass-rusher and play on the edge makes him an intriguing draft prospect.
"If he keeps playing the way he's playing, I don't see how he can stay," Cubelic said. "He's going to be a first-round pick."