"It was a few weeks after the Orange Bowl when I was talking to the coaches about what I needed to work on and they asked me what I thought about making a move to middle linebacker," said Williams, a former two-way star at Vacaville HS in Northern California. "I came here to play and so I took the switch as an opportunity to learn more of the overall defense, instead of knowing one position I'll need to know all that's going on because the Mike backer is the master of the defense."
The competition should be intense during spring ball with several players in the mix for the starting spot. Besides Williams, Oscar Lua, Ryan Powdrell and even Collin Ashton will see time as the USC coaches look to find the player who will fill the role as the QB of the defense for the upcoming season.
Lua is the experienced veteran who has battled two major knee injuries during his Trojan career but there is optimism this off-season as Oscar has been putting together some nice workouts and seems to be regaining some of the speed he showed as a freshman. Powdrell was a highly touted junior college transfer who redshirted last fall while learning the defense and he has the physical skills to challenge for the job. Ashton is a coach on the field, a smart player who can play all three linebacker spots.
Even though he has spent the past two seasons at the outside linebacker spots the move to the middle will not be entirely new to Williams as he played at both spots in high school "I moved around from middle to outside" and he did it well enough to be considered one of the elite players in the country during the recruiting process. While Thomas is looking forward to the opportunity he also knows that the switch will bring with it an entirely new set of responsibilities.
"It's exciting because I love to run downhill and mix it up in the trenches," said Williams. "The biggest difference will be making the calls and playing the leadership role in the huddle. When you're an OLB you're just taking the calls but now you're giving them. I love having ten guys looking at me waiting for the call and in that situation you need to show confidence. When the team is struggling, the type of eye contact you make is important because they need to see that confident look in your eye."
When his teammates look into Williams' eyes they will see a player who is ready to take charge. Thomas has a quiet nature off the field but on the field he brings an energy that led him to win the 2004 John McKay Award which is given to the USC underclassman with the most competitive spirit. He is known as a wedge-buster on special teams, a particular skill which involves running downfield at full speed and hurtling your body into a gauntlet of opposing players "if a brick wall was the wedge I would run through it". It was his performance on special teams, and the numerous highlight film hits that he delivered, which have Trojan fans looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. It takes a certain type of player to star on special teams and Williams understands how important special teams can be not only for the team but for his development as well.
"When you first come in you don't understand the importance of special teams. So many guys think "I don't do that" because they were stars in high school and didn't have to play special teams. The whole year of redshirting I learned that special teams is the first step of the ladder here. If you think about it, kickoff coverage or kickoff return is the starters for the game and it can be just as important as anything Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush will do in terms of setting the tone for the game. Special teams can turn a ballgame and I understood that this was my chance to help the team now and that my role on defense would come later."
With so many big plays last year we asked Thomas if he had any favorites from among his list of huge hits.
"The ones I remember are probably the tackle against Stanford, I also had a good block in that game and a block against UCLA. People got really excited about the hit in the Orange Bowl too. Sometimes you just go out there playing free and that's when you make plays."
Williams is quick to praise his coaches when talking about his progress as a linebacker. Thomas could often be seen after practices last fall staying late on the field to get in some extra work with Ken Norton or Rocky Seto as he understands just how much he stands to gain from listening to both men.
"I work on everything with Coach Norton. I just try to be a sponge and soak up everything I can when I'm around him. He's got such a great understanding of football and so much experience with what we're trying to do. Coach Seto as well, he knows the defense like the back of his hand, he's coached the safeties and he even worked with the d-line for a while last year when Coach Orgeron was gone. He knows where everything is supposed to be and he does a great job of making it as simple as it needs to be."
Williams says anything the Trojans do begins with the energy and enthusiasm set by Coach Carroll.
"Carroll is so great emotionally. You can be bored from school but once you see him in meetings you get electrified, I'm getting chills just thinking about it right now. All the coaches on our staff are that way and that's why all the guys on our team would run through a wall for them. It all starts with Coach Carroll and it gets passed along. Behind closed doors it's just a great environment to be a part of. There's lots of trash talk among coaches and players. They get you so fired up to dominate the man in front of you, you want to do it on this play, then the next play and the next play. That's the way they teach. When we get together in drills it can get pretty intense, I'm more sore after practices than I am after games. Nobody practices as hard as us."
There are many hard practices waiting in the coming weeks during this spring ball period for Williams but he also found time to look back and reflect upon the magical run during the fall of 2004 on the road to the national championship. We asked him to think about the moments that stood out for him and he described two; a critical turning point early in the year and a season ending moment of realization when he knew the Trojans had won the national championship.
"I remember halftime against Stanford. Anybody can win games when you are up the whole time but you find out your true character when you are down with your back against the wall. To see the way everyone came together at that point was great. A good team will find a way to win in that situation and as we sat in that locker room we knew nothing could stop us. I also look back on halftime against Oklahoma. We couldn't wait to get back on that field for the second half and the Sooner players had to walk right past our locker room so we were chanting at them, to see the look on their faces they knew there was nothing they could do to stop us. At that point I knew everything we had worked so hard for was worth it."