The underachieving five-star prospect turned sympathetic figure.
It’s a case study as rare among college fan bases as the mid-range jump shot in modern college basketball, but that’s the current status of Notre Dame’s Ishaq Williams, one of six members of the recruiting class of 2011 back on campus in an effort to aid the 2015 Irish.
Among a trio of five-star defensive line prospects in head coach Brian Kelly’s first full recruiting cycle, Williams has since produced one more career tackle for loss (6) than awarded recruiting stars following his prep career at Abraham Lincoln High School (Brooklyn, NY).
A two-semester suspension in his senior season for academic dishonesty clouded Williams’ football future, and though the final chapter in that story has yet to be written, there’s a crucial silver lining available, regardless of his future football prospects: Williams has been re-admitted to the university and can thus conclude his stay in South Bend with a Notre Dame degree.
For the first and only time in our A-to-Z series, there are two:
-- Realistic Best-Case Scenario: Williams plays as a scholarship athlete for the Irish in 2015.
-- Best-Case Scenario: He contributes heavily to the defensive line rotation in competitive game action.
Standing in Williams’ way toward either outcome are five defensive ends, four of whom will return through the 2016 season or beyond: Romeo Okwara (2015), Isaac Rochell (2016), Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship (2017), and Jonathan Bonner (2018).
In terms of developed talent, Williams has no advantage on any member of the quintet, though his experience as a valued rotation defender in 2012 (especially) and 2013 affords him a chance to carve a niche.
It’s relevant to note that current defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme is not similar to those in which Williams worked under Bob Diaco from 2011-2013. Williams’ former “tweener” status as a hybrid OLB/DE no longer applies, though a potential Rush End position in sub packages could fit his skillset if Williams is in playing shape.
The vagaries of NCAA eligibility coupled with Williams’ academic choices/results preclude him from playing football in 2015.
With 43 career tackles including six for lost yardage, one sack, one forced fumble and a pair of QB Hurries, Williams’ career statistics entering his final season closely resembles those of former Irish linebacker/defensive end John Ryan.
Through 34 games (compared to Williams’ 35) Ryan produced 50 tackles with an identical six for lost yardage to go with 2.5 sacks, two passes defended, and a forced fumble entering his senior season of 2009.
Williams would do well to match Ryan’s final season statistics: 20 tackles including four for loss with two sacks and a fumble recovery.
A five-star prospect across the board, Williams was the No. 16 ranked prospect overall per Rivals.com; No. 42 for ESPN.com, and this website listed him at No. 20 overall – 24 spots ahead of Stephon Tuitt and 10 behind Aaron Lynch.
As a junior in 2013, Williams’ most recent season as a contributor, he finished with just five solo tackles and 12 assists including one tackle for loss.
His sophomore season of 2012 was clearly Williams’ best work: 22 tackles including 3.5 for loss, a crucial QB Hurry against Pittsburgh, a pass defended, and a forced fumble that led to a teammate’s touchdown.
Barring the greatest comeback since Pabst Blue Ribbon, Williams appears unlikely to fulfill the potential affixed to his recruitment.
Though Williams’ clutch fourth quarter efforts against Pittsburgh in a 2012 triple-overtime victory were invaluable (a third-down pressure and third-down tackle of standout runner Ray Graham), his best overall outing occurred one week prior, in Norman vs. the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners.
The stat line shows three tackles, one for lost yardage. The film review, conversely, illustrates his versatility, promise and potential as a true sophomore reserve on one of the best defenses in program history.
First Quarter: Williams sets the edge defensively to allow Kona Schwenke a tackle for loss with Notre Dame’s back to the goal line.
Third Quarter: Williams backpedals 20 yards down the left seam vs. Sooner slot receiver Kenny Stills (now of the Miami Dolphins) on 3rd-and-12 to help force an Oklahoma punt.
Fourth Quarter: Williams (from the outside, with Manti Te’o on the other flank) combine with Stephon Tuitt for a 3rd-and-5 QB Hurry to force another punt.
Whether as a standup 3-4 linebacker or hand-on-the-ground 4-3 defensive end, Williams’ efforts as a nickel player – the defense used most often vs. Oklahoma that evening – were invaluable and undervalued.
““I know the thing that passed through my mind is what respect I have for this kid and his character. He had some choices. But to see the decisions that he’s made, even in light of this distasteful situation, he’s gonna do what he can with what’s made available.” – Shaun Williams, Ishaq’s father as told to Pete Sampson.