Mr. Monday Night Football made the tongue in cheek comment that Williams was the first high school football player who could've made the jump straight to the NFL. At 6'2" and 235 pounds coming out of powerhouse De La Salle in Pittsburg, CA – maybe so. Williams was the Defensive Player of the Year and the top rated defensive player nationally after his senior season. Rushed for almost 2,000 yards, scored a school record 42 touchdowns – and also tallied 87 solo tackles, six sacks, five fumbles caused and three recovered.
Lucky for Miami, Williams took his talents to Coral Gables and was the gem of the 2000 recruiting class - which also included future and projected first round draft picks Jon Vilma, Vince Wilfork and Willis McGahee.
As a freshman in 2000, the cupboard was full regarding linebackers at Miami. Dan Morgan, Howard Clark and the late Chris Campbell were the trio. Freshman Jon Vilma and Jerrell Weaver saw some snaps as reserves, but limited action was not what the highly touted Williams hoped for so a temporary position change was in store.
Coaches needed a reserve fullback to play behind Najeh Davenport, and Williams was the man for the gig. He had the build, played running back in high school and was willing to do whatever it took to see action on the field. He saw limited action in first three games of 2000, but eventually played a minor role in the upset of #1 Florida State with 8 carries for 29 yards and a touchdown. He finished the season with 32 carries for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns.
A year later it was back to weakside linebacker. Hit the ground running with a team leading 10 total tackles at Penn State in a convincing 33-7 win and came up large with 5 tackles in a 66-0 shutout of Rutgers. Experienced an ankle injury early in post 9/11 contest with Pittsburgh which sidelined him for almost eight quarters. Came back against Florida State, but was limited to two tackles. A week later forced a fumble in a 45-3 rout of West Virginia. Five tackles against Temple. Five stops – two for losses – against Boston College. Seven tackles in the 59-0 shutout of Syracuse. Four tackles in the 65-7 revenge match against Washington. One stop at Virginia Tech in the season finale.
Williams did save the best for last in 2001, with a memorable Rose Bowl performance. Four tackles (three solo), a quarterback sack for a 10-yard loss on Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch and a crucial forced fumble.
On a team full of superstars – possibly 15 first rounders after this April's draft – Williams still found a way to shine.
As a junior in 2002, Williams elevated his game to that next level. After a somewhat slow start (only 4 tackles against FAMU), the Butkus Award candidate stifled the Gators' ground attack with nine tackles in a 41-16 Canes' victory. Combined for 18 tackles in the next three outings, but saved the breakout performance for the largest stage – Miami vs. Florida State. In this sixth game of the season, Williams unloaded on the Seminoles' offense with a career-high 16 tackles which proved to make the difference in a closely fought 28-27 battle.
A week later he posted 12 tackles in a slugfest with then conference rival West Virginia. A respectable 13 tackles combined against Rutgers and Tennessee – both Miami blowouts – and another 16 tackle outing against Pittsburgh, where defense was the difference in a 28-21 victory. The final two regular season games resulted in 12 tackles – with 3 for loss.
Another top notch bowl outing came with 8 tackles (3 for loss) and a pass break up against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
All Williams' career bests came in 2002 (tackles, solo tackles, assists, tackles for loss, quarterback sacks and passes broken up), but 2003 was another great campaign for the Miami senior. 83 tackles on the year, 11.5 tackles for loss and six quarterback sacks. An All-America Candidate, a Butkus Award Candidate and an All-BIG EAST Conference Candidate. The stage was set for a thrilling final season at linebacker.
Equally as exciting, was another opportunity for Williams to remind opponents – and future NFL scouts – about his wheels.
In the season opener at Louisiana Tech, Williams instinctively scooped up a fumble and outran the entire Ragin' Cajuns' offense for a 78-yard touchdown. Against Temple, it was a fake punt and direct snap to Williams which resulted in a 61-yard touchdown. The entire Owls' offense saw nothing but taillights and the back of a #17 jersey.
Florida State was duped by the same play in the 2004 Orange Bowl. Another short yardage situation for the Miami offense looked to result in a punt. Instead, another direct snap to Williams and a big time 31-yard run helped the Canes retain possession and hold on for a 16-14 win.
With the NFL Draft weeks away, all the talk is about which Miami linebacker to settle for – Williams or Vilma. Alike in so many ways, yet so different. Both are projected first rounders, but the question for teams is, brains or natural abilities? According to their former linebackers coach at Miami, Vernon Hargreaves it is a win-win.
"I don't think you can go wrong," said Hargreaves. "But if you put those guys together, you'd have the perfect linebacker."
While Vilma is regarded as the overachieving, mildly undersized, instinctive, sharp linebacker – Williams is the absolute physical prototype for his position. His 6'2" and 242 pound frame is ideal for league standards – and then some. His strength was on display with 23 reps of 225 pounds on the flat bench, he runs a 4.60 40-yard dash and many feel he has barely scratched the surface with his potential. He has the physical strength to take on massive offensive lineman, yet possesses the sideline to sideline speed that great linebackers need. He's very effective in pass coverage, but can still rush the quarterback with a vengeance.
A recent unnamed scout said the following about Williams:
"You will not see 60 minutes from him in any one game where he absolutely dominated, but you see that he is still learning and progressing. You like to see that. I just wonder if he'll ever be able to play up to his best all the time."
A soft spoken, introverted, private individual – it has proven difficult to get a true read on this phenom. Regarding talent, ability and potential – sky's the limit. There is little doubt that D.J. Williams has the opportunity to be one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. Much will depend on the organization that drafts him, the team chemistry, the coaches (and their ability to bring him along) and his attitude.
Many will remember a rumor of a homesick Williams considering a transfer to hometown Cal a few seasons back. He was supposedly uncomfortable at Miami and felt a million miles from home. Of course he stuck it out, had a successful career at The U and is now weeks away from a first round payday. Still, the situation he finds himself in will be sure to dictate the level of his success. It takes a strong willed player to succeed with a dismal organization or sub par coaching staff. Cane fans have to hope that Williams winds up with a franchise that sports a great defensive mind at the helm.
Every publication has Williams going in the first round. It appears to be a no brainer. He is listed as high as going #9 to Jacksonville and as low as #29 to Indianapolis. Other publications list New York (Jets) at the #12 slot, Chicago at #14, New Orleans at #18, Miami at #20, Seattle at #23 or Philadelphia at #28.
Miami's recent tradition at linebacker has some calling "Quarterback U" the new "Linebacker U". In the past decade names like Michael Barrow, Darrin Smith, Jessie Armstead, Ray Lewis, Nate Webster and Dan Morgan all made their mark at Miami and in the NFL. Several first round draft picks and Pro Bowlers on that list above. D.J. Williams will join that elite group in a few weeks and has the potential to be one of the best ever, according to his former linebacker coach at Miami in the 2003 media guide.
"D.J. has everything you could want from an athletic standpoint," said Hargreaves. "Now he's becoming one of the best linebackers we've had around here."
A bold statement – but a true one. In a few weeks Williams will make a franchise extremely happy with their pick. How happy, is entirely up to him. If he lives up to his potential and utilizes his tremendous speed and size, multiple Pro Bowl invites and defensive MVP trophies are in store.
Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1996, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org