With the USC offense facing 3rd and 10 at its own 42 with just over three minutes remaining, Trojans running back Joe McKnight found an outside lane over the left side after a well-timed screen pass. Williams sprinted from his nose tackle position to the sideline, then dove and knocked McKnight out of bounds short of the first-down marker, thus forcing a USC punt and affording the Irish a final chance in their near-comeback last October.
Williams was one yard ahead of McKnight, but several body lengths inside the speedy runner when he caught the pass. His now forgotten effort on the play would have gone down in Irish annals had Notre Dame's final drive ended in the end zone rather than on the Trojan's 4-yard line.
Instead, William's 2009 season is largely remembered for three early-November words best left unsaid.
"We got out-schemed…"Williams' explanation of a second consecutive home loss to the Naval Academy was accurate. The Irish defense was out-schemed, and the defensive coaching staff was taken to task for the unit's failure.
But Williams should have known better than to utter those words before adding the backhanded compliment (and painfully obvious truth), "and I think they just played harder." It was an error in judgment by an upperclassman, but the frustration of another humbling loss can play with a young athlete's post-game psyche.
Though not a prototypical space-eater in the middle, Williams is better suited for the two-gap nose guard role in a 3-4 base defense than that of an upfield nose tackle he played in Notre Dame's 2009 4-3 set.
Williams' 2009 season was a bit disjointed. He posted the lowest tackle total of his career (39) despite starting more games (9) than in both of his previous seasons combined. But six of those 39 stop were behind the line of scrimmage – a career best – and he was the only member of the Irish defense to notch a tackle-for-loss in every November game, a time when most of the defense had shown signs of wear and tear.
Williams' 2010 OutlookAs with junior teammate Ethan Johnson, Williams was once a true freshman thrown to the fray at college football's most physical position. As a freshman nose tackle in 2007, Williams led all Irish defensive linemen in total tackles (45) despite making just two starts. Nothing about the '07 defense was dominant, but his play on the nose led many observers to believe Notre Dame had found its interior rock to build upon.
Williams' greatest strength on film is one every coach covets and preaches: sheer hustle. Whether he gains an advantage off the snap or is effectively blocked to begin a play, Williams rarely gives up between the whistles and consistently fights to make plays downfield – a valuable trait for a coaching staff that tracks "loafs" as part of its analysis of each player.
His quickness of the ball should serve him well as he anchors back into a true nose guard position (look for more tipped balls from the senior due to his backfield penetration and ability to get off the ground when stymied at the line this fall).
With the exception of Manti Te'o, of whom much is expected at the paper thin inside linebacker position, no Irish defender's assumed improvement will impact Notre Dame's season as much the senior nose guard's. With a nod to that reality, Williams received the support of the aforementioned Johnson early in the spring session.
"We all love football," Johnson said of the team's starting DL trio (including Kapron Lewis-Moore). "And I know Ian's played this position before. He's head and shoulders above the rest of us and I think he's going to have a great season."
The Notre Dame defense won't survive without at least a solid season from Ian Williams…but a "great" season on the nose would likely equal BCS contention for the Irish.
Williams at his best in 2009
- Washington: A 3rd-and-goal tackle moving down the line of scrimmage vs. Huskies QB Jake Locker helped limit Washington to a field goal (following an 8-play stand) and a manageable 5-point deficit in the 4th Quarter.
- Michigan State: Played what might have been his best half of the season, helping to limit the Spartans to just 33 rushing yards over the final 30 minutes. Williams made two plays at the line of scrimmage, highlighted by an excellent stop, sliding down the line and stuffing RB Glenn Winston for a one-yard loss in the first half and combining with Harrison Smith to limit Larry Caper to one yard early in the 3rd Quarter.
- Pittsburgh: With the Irish trailing 10-3 early in the 2nd Half, Williams made a crucial 3rd-and-1 tackle-for-loss vs. Panthers fullback Harry Hynoski. The tackle forced a Panthers field goal deep in Irish territory, saving four points and keeping the scuffling Irish within striking distance at 13-3. Each of Williams' three tackles vs. the Panthers occurred at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Williams' moments to forget from 2009
- Michigan: Williams had a rough time against mostly solo blocking schemes through the season's first two games, including these IrishEyes film-review notes at Michigan (The Irish defense allowed 190 rushing yards in the contest):
Shoved out of the way (solo block) on Minor's 16-yard gain and one play later was dominated by UM right guard David Moosman as Minor burst up the middle for a 32-yard gain…neutralized on consecutive solo blocks that allowed Minor carries through his gap for gains of 6 and 13 yards…Williams was completely controlled by right guard Moosman for most of the afternoon…stuck with the play despite being blocked initially to hold Carlos Brown to a six-yard gain on 2nd and 8 (would have been significantly more if not for Williams' hustle)…made an excellent play in space vs. a WR-screen pass late...
- Washington: After the Irish defense stopped the Huskies short of the goal on three plays inside the 5-yard line, Williams is called for "Roughing the Snapper" on the ensuing field goal attempt, giving Washington a new set of downs. An absolutely ridiculous (makeup) call, but the Irish defense inexplicably held Washington out of the end zone on three more plays from the 1-yard line before the Huskies converted a field goal to extend to a 24-19 lead.
- Navy: Posted a team-best 8 tackles including one for lost yardage. On the flip side, had a front row seat to the best performance by a fullback at Notre Dame Stadium since Marc Edwards graduated in 1996, as Midshipmen bruiser Vince Murray bludgeoned the Irish front seven with an obscene 158 yards on 14 carries including an untouched 25-yard touchdown burst up the gut.