LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Only a few weeks into his college career, Dustin Williams encountered a football fork in the road.
Go one way, learn a new position.
Go the other, continue a lifelong dream.
"I've played linebacker since I was a little youth football player," Williams said. "It's the only position I've ever played, so when they told me I needed to lose weight and get a little quicker to play the position, I was willing to do whatever it took. And coach (John) Goodner told me he wanted me at linebacker, so that gave me all the extra incentive I needed."
At one point, however, it wasn't that cut and dried.
Williams came to Kentucky last year as a highly-regarded linebacker from Minooka (Ill.) High School. But he also arrived in Lexington packing a few more pounds than he'd ever played with, making his transition to the college game even more difficult than the typical freshman endures.
He received some playing time in the season-opener against Louisville when starter Ronnie Riley went down with a season-ending ACL injury and recorded three tackles in his debut. But he was also confused by the Cardinals' sophisticated passing scheme and picked on by UofL quarterback Dave Ragone for a touchdown pass just moments after he entered the game.
A concussion followed the next week in practice, forcing Williams to the sideline for the rest of the season and leading to a medical redshirt.
During the off-season, his status was a popular topic of conversation among UK fan circles. At approximately 260 pounds, he was thought to be a prime candidate to move to defensive end.
The linebacker in his heart wouldn't let that happen.
"I don't think I was ready to make the transition to defensive end," Williams said. "I mean, I would have done whatever it took to get on the field and help the team win, but deep down inside, I've always been a linebacker."
That meant committing to a rigorous off-season conditioning program that would enable him to keep pursuing that dream. Three days into spring practice, it appears the hard work has paid off. Williams is now a lean, quicker 6-foot-5, 245 pounds.
"He had one heckuva off-season," UK defensive coordinator John Goodner said. "We started the Monday after the Indiana game, and Dustin was just great. He did a great job in the weight room and in his conditioning. I think it's helped him build some confidence where he feels like more of a college football player."
"They've had me working out hard and eating right, that's the main thing," Williams said. "They've helped me understand what it takes to be successful at this level.
"We've been lifting and running for nine weeks now. Now I'm ready to start hitting somebody," added Williams, who brought the nickname "Hammer" to UK from his prep football days.
The Kentucky staff is ready to see the new Williams in action. The Cats will hold their first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at the Nutter Center, and Williams will likely be starting at one inside position as Riley continues to rehab his knee.
"He's worked really hard, he's starting to develop, and he really looks like what a linebacker is supposed to look like," UK coach Guy Morriss said. "At this point, all he's got to do is learn the system, getting them in and out of the huddle, and being our signal-caller. He's got to become a take-charge guy.
"A good spring would be invaluable to him."
Williams said he feels better equipped to deal with the speed of the game.
"The hardest thing for me was adjusting to how fast everything was," he said. "You've got to be in great condition to play the game at this level, especially for a guy like coach Goodner. He's going 100 miles per hour all the time.
"Learning the system was another big thing. You can try all you want and fly around the field, but if you don't know where you're going, it doesn't do you any good... I feel a lot better about the system and the terminology and making the reads and calls now."
Thus far, Goodner likes what he sees. He believes Williams may be set at linebacker for the long haul.
"Unless something bad happens, we want him at linebacker," Goodner said. "We feel like he can give us something there we haven't had."