Williams Knows Time is Running Out

Leon Williams doesn't want anybody lowering the bar - even though it's been set pretty high. After being forced to wait his turn over the last three seasons, Williams finally has the opportunity he's dreamed of right before his eyes. And everybody from Larry Coker to Vernon Hargreaves is counting on Williams to seize it.

"I don't feel any pressure at all because as long as I go out and do my job I think everything should be alright," says Williams, who is frontrunner to start at middle linebacker when the Hurricanes open the season against Florida State Sept. 6. "I don't feel I need to be looking over my shoulder all the time. I believe in my abilities as a football player."

He better.

All Williams is being asked to do is replace standout Jonathan Vilma, who was selected 12th overall in the NFL draft by the New York Jets after leading the Hurricanes in tackles for three straight seasons. Vilma quickly earned the reputation of having 'football smarts' for his ability to visually see a play even before it happened - something that has been questioned about Williams.

"I came in knowing that they had somebody at the position already and I was going to soak it in," says Williams. "I learned a lot from Jonathan because he's a student of the game. He would just sit there and watch hours and hours of tape. I don't think Jon ever went into a game unprepared. That's one of the reasons he's such a great player."

Whether it be the lack of playing time at linebacker, thanks in part to Vilma, or his struggles to grasp the Hurricanes defensive scheme, Williams admits he's fallen short of expectations - something not lost on Coker.

"Leon's been here four years so he should know the position," Coker said. "For a linebacker it's hard to tell how good you are until you get in pads and tackle people."

Some wonder if Williams' inability to learn the system will forever slow his development as a player. This while younger players such as Jon Beason continue to make positive strides and possibly challenge for his job.

"I feel I have a good shot (at starting)," says Beason. "I can't go by what the other guys are doing. I can just worry about myself."

However, the 6-4, 237-pounder Williams hasn't had a chance to prove himself at linebacker. Williams, who has started just one game at linebacker for the Hurricanes, has excelled on special teams, including making 23 tackles last season. A gifted athlete, Williams has used exceptional speed to become a solid tackler. He had 43 tackles in 2002.

"I have no questions about Leon physically," says Hargreaves. "But there's a lot more to the position than just being a good athlete."

With sophomore Tavares Gooden and junior Roger McIntosh joining Williams at the linebacker spots, the Hurricanes could be in for some growing pains. Missed tackles and reads could be a common occurrence early on for a group that will open the season with just seven career starts combined between them.

"It's going to take some time with all of us," says Williams. "You don't replace a Vilma and (D.J.) Williams and expect everything to be alright from the start. We just need some time together."

But nothing is certain, although Coker has indicated on several occasions during camp that Willliams is going to be the starter. Despite high praise recently of red-shirt freshman Jon Beason, who has impressed the coaching since being moved from fullback to linebacker, Coker says Williams is going to start at middle linebacker.

"I think Leon is the starting middle linebacker," Coker said.

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