BBD Contributor: Brian Krosky
Versatility is the name of the game in the NFL. Most players are now asked to do more than one job, and the ability to contribute in multiple capacities sets great players away from good players. This is especially true for defensive linemen, where the best players need to be able to rush the passer and stuff the run, play in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes and adjust their talents to multiple roles. Leonard Williams, a 2013 third-team AP All-American from USC, has no shortage of versatility.
As a freshman in 2012, Williams played 3-technique defensive tackle on a defense coached by Monte Kiffin, who is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff. The Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year, he totaled 64 tackles, including 13.5 for loss (8 sacks), while he also had four deflections, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Last season, Williams occupied the 5-technique defensive end position under new USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He started 13 games and had 74 tackles, including 13.5 for loss (6 sacks), with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He suffered a shoulder injury against Oregon State on Nov. 1, and struggled with the recovery the rest of the year.
USC’s defensive scheme is changing yet again this year and Williams is set to play defensive end in the Trojans’ 3-4 alignment. He has two years of remaining eligiblity for USC, but should be a top prospect for the 2015 draft if he declares.
Why You Should Watch Williams in 2014
Pass-rushing is the most complete part of Williams’ game. His versatility allows him to rush the passer from different gaps.
The following clip is an example of Williams using his athleticism to get around the opposing guard and take down Utah quarterback Travis Wilson for a sack.
A natural edge-rusher could use speed alone to get around someone like an interior lineman; Williams doesn’t have that much speed, and you can’t expect him to with his size, listed at 6’5″ and 300 pounds by USC’s official athletics site. Yet he uses his quickness to set himself up in an advantageous position, then uses his hands to push off the blocker. His rare mix of athleticism strength allows him to wreck havoc along the line, and he can use his skill set to rush from the inside or outside.
The above example also shows Williams’ athleticism and pass-rushing ability. The defensive end to his outside rushed around the edge, which allowed Williams to rush through the B gap. Once again his quick first step allows him to get outside of the guard, but he used his strength and his hands to break the edge, and disrupt the rhythm of the passer. Although he didn’t get a sack or even deflect the ball (which he came close to), he forced Wilson to rush his throw, leading to an overthrown interception.
What Williams Needs to Prove
While he has great pass-rushing skills, Williams can struggle mightily on run defense and often disappears. He gets pushed back too often. He plays too high and doesn’t allow himself to generate enough penetration. Even when he does win the battle, he often can’t capitalize on his opportunity.
In the following play versus Arizona last year, he quickly made his way into the backfield for a chance at a third-down tackle for loss, but he overran the play and Ka’Deem Carey easily eluded him to rush for a first down.
The talent and tangibles are all there for Williams. However, he needs to work on his discipline to make himself a more complete defender. If he can accomplish this in 2014, he will become a truly elite prospect.
Projecting Williams’ Draft Stock
Williams is currently recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but is expected to be healthy for the beginning of the season. He has the potential to be one the best defensive lineman in college football this year.
Because he can play multiple positions, his appeal won’t be limited to only certain teams. The saying now is that “you can never have too many pass-rushers.” Should he declare for the 2015 draft, look for Williams to be one of the first defenders off of the board.