The casual Vol fan might be shocked to know Williams is even on the Vol football team. That same fan would be stunned to know that Williams is, in fact, on the first team when the Vols open in their nickel (five-defensive backs) package.
His obscurity may be down to its final week, however. He should see considerable action at cornerback in Sunday night’s opener versus Utah State.
“Mike’s got great quickness, change of direction and suddenness,” Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek said recently. “He’s a good press corner. I think he’s a good off corner, too, if he just slows down a little bit. Sometimes he goes a little fast but I like Mike’s skill set.”
So does Tennessee’s head coach, who also likes Williams’ work ethic.
“He’s done a really good job,” Butch Jones told Inside Tennessee. “He’s been very consistent throughout training camp and brings it every day.”
So, who is Michael Williams and what is he doing in Tennessee’s secondary?
He starred on the gridiron and the track at DeMatha Catholic High School in Washington D.C., then signed a football scholarship with the Maryland Terrapins. When head coach Ralph Friedgen was fired following the 2011 season, Williams was granted a release from his scholarship to attend Tennessee on a track scholarship.
Williams anchored Tennessee’s 4x400 relay unit that placed sixth at the SEC Indoors in the winter of 2012. He was sitting in the stands at Neyland Stadium in September of that year when he came down with a serious case of football fever.
“My first priority was track but I just couldn’t give up football,” he recalled. “I remember it was the Florida game here. I was in the stands and I was like, ‘Man, I can still play.’ Sitting back and watching, I didn’t want to be in the stands anymore. I wanted to be out there, running around and making plays. That really drove me to come out here and play.”
Competing in one college sport is a chore. Competing in two is a daunting task. Williams felt up to the challenge of participating in football and track, though.
“I always set my goals to be That Guy that can do both sports,” he recalled. “I love track, and I came here for track. Walking on for football is just another opportunity.”
Although Williams missed some spring practices to compete in track meets, the Vol staff has been flexible to date.
“The coaches understand I’m a track guy at heart, so they’re understanding with my schedule,” he said. “They’ve really helped me balance both sports.”
Because track is not a contact sport most track guys who try to double as football players are characterized as “soft.” Williams shakes his head at the idea this term might apply to him.
“I consider myself a very physical player,” he said. “My brother (ex-NFL player Madieu Williams) taught me to be a physical guy. I come from a background where we’re not really soft. In Washington D.C. they teach you to be a tough guy.”
Still, Michael Williams had some concerns about juggling two sports. That’s why he called former Vol and New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, who managed to excel at track and football from 2000-2003.
“I called him two years ago and asked ‘How did you go about it?’” Williams recalled. “He told me to stay focused. Track gives you an edge because you’re fast out there, so take advantage, be healthy, get treatment and focus in school.”
Williams took the advice … except the part about “be healthy.” Injured early on, he missed the entire 2013 football season. He recovered in time to take part in spring practice but failed to distinguish himself.
Over the summer Williams dedicated himself to becoming a contributor in football. Result: He has looked like a different player in preseason drills. Vol receivers who face him in practice each day have noticed.
“He’s done a lot better,” Josh Smith said. “He’s stepped up through training camp. Overall, he’s done great. Going from track to football is a big transition and he’s transitioned great. He’s with the 1s and he’s doing good. He’s a physical guy. He’s very fast, which is what you need in a DB, but he’s been making some plays.”
Now listed at 5-feet-11 and 186 pounds, Williams says he grew up a lot between March and August, mentally more so than physically.
“I’m older,” he said. “I don’t make as many mistakes as I did last year. I have more consistency than last year, instead of just running around. I’m familiar with the defense.”
That familiarity is paying dividends this preseason. Williams’ knowledge generally keeps him in good position. Even when he gets out of position, his recovery speed enables him to atone for mistakes.
“If I’m beat I can recover real fast, so I take advantage of it,” he said. “I’m just blessed to have that speed.”
So is Tennessee’s secondary. The Vols’ defensive backfield has been ponderously slow in recent years, so Williams’ speed has been getting him a lot of the first-team repetitions in practice.
“I just kept playing,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about trying to be a starter. Coach (Butch Jones) gave me an opportunity, and I just took advantage of it. I’m blessed to have that opportunity.”
Most of all, he’s blessed to have the kind of speed that is required of a major-college cornerback.
“Coach is always preaching that nobody can run by you, so I take into consideration that I’m a track guy, I’m fast, so nobody can run by me,” Williams said. “I’ll just keep playing tough and physical, keep listening to coach and keep balling.”
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