In short, the simple math would indicate that for some talented players, there won’t be a happy ending. But don’t tell that to Cam Williams.
The senior linebacker has started just one game – against Illinois in 2013 – during his four-year career at Ohio State, and he’s the first to admit that number likely won’t change this season. A four-star linebacker out of West Roxbury, Mass., Williams had the misfortune of being sandwiched between two top-50 recruits who play his position.
After backing up Curtis Grant in 2013, Williams slid down to third in the pecking order last fall thanks to the arrival of true freshman Raekwon McMillan. After splitting time with Grant in 2014, McMillan won the job outright in 2015. It was never a competition in the way that the quarterbacks and kickers have been auditioned and scrutinized, and it would likely take an injury or something similarly dire for Williams to move into the starting role. That’s no knock on Williams, either – McMillan just happens to be a freshman All-American who has the look of an instinctual, once-in-a-generation linebacker.
Williams would start at several Big Ten schools, and a transfer could have put him in a better position to follow in the footsteps of his father Brent and brother Brennan, both of whom have played in the NFL. But Williams never considered leaving Columbus, even though he knew that was probably the most convenient path to significant playing time.
“I’m all about the team,” he said. “I’ve had great experiences here that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. That’s not a complacency thing, either. I’m always pushing Raekwon and I’m always pushing to be the best I can be. Obviously you always want to get better and continue to push and continue to want more, and that’s what I’m doing every day. I love it here. I love Ohio State, love the university. I love the opportunities I’ve had and the guys I’ve been around. Leaving never crossed my mind.”
Although playing time governs the majority of such decisions, there’s something to be said for Williams’ choice. He’s a national champion. He occupies the middle shield on punts, serving as the most trusted player on that special teams play. He holds McMillan accountable, making sure that the sophomore goes out there and earns his starting spot each practice. If something happens, the man who was once the No. 172 prospect in the country is waiting for his shot.
“What’s my role? Push Raekwon every day,” Williams said. “Push him every day. Definitely want to rotate more at the linebacker position, hopefully. I have to play better. But I have to push Raekwon every day and get to the point where I can get on the field.”
His insistence on staying put and devotion to the program gives Ohio State the type of depth needed to win national championships. Where there would otherwise be a true freshman or walk-on in the backup role, there is instead an experienced veteran who teammates praise for his intelligence.
“Cam’s the smartest guy in the room,” sophomore linebacker Darron Lee said. “I don’t think anybody in the linebacker room knows ball better than him. He’s the quarterback of our punt team and handles the game well. Cam’s been a great leader. He’s always teaching Raekwon little things here and there. He’s a great mentor, honestly. I learned part of the game from him, too.”
How many teams have the luxury of employing as a role player someone who draws such praise? Special teams is the domain of the young, a proving group for true freshmen looking to earn the trust of head coach Urban Meyer. For Williams, his spot out there is a chance to not only impact the game but also to lead a unit and mentor young players outside of the linebacker room.
“He’s asked to do a lot of things that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily want to do,” said senior linebacker Joshua Perry, who is Williams’ roommate. “You know, go in there and learn all the special teams, that kind of stuff. Be on the field making those plays. And then, when you’re on defense, we need you to know the defense and go coach the younger guys. Maybe you’re not going to get a ton of playing time, but that’s the role we need you to take. He embraces it 100 percent.”
Added senior walk-on Joe Burger: “If you look at who the middle shield is on punts, it’s Cam Williams and it’s because he’s trustworthy. If you need a job to get done, you’re going to call Cam Williams.”
In addition to the obvious on-field benefits of being able to use a player of his talents on special teams and as a rotation player on defense, there’s also the impact Williams has on the linebackers in the meeting room. Meyer is fond of saying that he needs the Buckeyes to be nine units strong, referring to the nine position groups coached by assistants, and Williams has done his part to ensure that the linebackers are compliant.
“He’s invaluable,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. “That’s what makes up good units and what makes up good teams. You have to have guys that are unselfish. Just because they’re not the starting guy or might not be the guy getting all the credit, they still work as hard and they’re great examples for the guys around them. It’s great for us as coaches but it’s also great for the young guys in the room because they get to see how guys are supposed to work and what gives them a chance to be successful.”
The ability to make Ohio State better serves as the driving force for Williams. Two years after Meyer spent the 2013 season criticizing the linebackers for not being good enough, the room is thriving as one of the most functional units on the team. Williams will never stop chasing a bigger role on the field, but he said he can leave Ohio State knowing he did his part to make the Buckeyes better.
“It’s all about how you leave,” he said. “Coach Fick talks all the time about leaving your unit better than it was when you came here. We’re better right now, and we want to continue to make it better. That’s how you want to be remembered. That’s not always about playing time or going to the NFL and playing forever. I want to be remembered for the positive remembrance of who I was and what I did. That’s what it’s all about.”