Closing the 'gap' on greatness

The gap between being a good defensive tackle and a great one is often a matter of ... well, staying in your gap.

Tennessee's Dan Williams learned that lesson the hard way last fall. When he stayed in his gap – even if he didn't contribute to the tackle – the opponent's gain usually was minimal. When he vacated his gap, however, a sizable gain often resulted.

"A lot of times last year I played out of gap," he admits. "At the time I thought I hadn't hurt the team. When we went back and watched the film, though, I saw I was out of position and hurt the team some. So I need to play my gaps better, really know my responsibilities and try to help out with the pass rush."

Even playing "out of gap" a lot last fall, Williams was Tennessee's most effective defensive tackle. Despite starting just 10 of the 14 games, he recorded 40 stops, easily outdistancing fellow tackles Demonte Bolden (29) and J.T. Mapu (22). Williams also registered two sacks, three hurries and a game-saving field-goal block in the second overtime at Kentucky.

At 6-3 and 320 pounds, Williams is a full load to try and block. Heft alone isn't enough to cut it in the rugged Southeastern Conference, however. Other attributes are required.

"For the most part it's how well you move your feet and how well you use your hands," he notes. "If you really don't use your hands in the trenches, the offensive linemen will rag-doll you. They'll control you, manhandle you.

"It's also about leverage and pad level. You've got to play low and play fast."

Although the massive Memphian has made steady progress since showing up in Knoxville three years ago, he didn't feel he truly arrived until last September.

"I'd probably say Southern Miss," he says. "That was one of my better games last year. I wouldn't say I 'got there' but I really felt like I could be a big factor to help my team out. I could do more than what I did in the past years and I could be very important to help my team win."

Williams' importance to the team last fall went beyond tackles and assists, however. He provided leadership, even as a soft-spoken sophomore.

"Last year I tried to motivate the young guys," he recalls. "Even though nobody had really heard of me, you can still make a big impact for your team. If you believe in yourself, work hard and go out there and show what you can do, we'll be fine."

With Mapu out of eligibility, the depth behind Williams and Bolden in 2008 consists of Walter Fisher and a group of young pups.

"I'm just trying to set a good example for these younger guys," Williams says. "I tell them that no one's name is set in stone. If they outperform me – if I perform bad and they're improving during practice – they could take my spot tomorrow."

The odds of anyone taking Dan Williams' spot in '08 are pretty long. Still, he feels the need to prove himself every time he takes the field.

"It's just a matter of leading the younger guys," he says, "and trying to keep my game up, so one of those younger guys won't take my spot."

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