This article appears in the November 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Jermaine Williams had an unusual reaction when he huddled up on defense at the first padded practice of the season earlier this year. He cracked up. Not what you'd typically expect from Maryvale's senior leader on both sides of the ball.
But totally understandable.
After all, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end was standing in the huddle alongside two starting linebackers that he knows all too well — his younger brother, Eric, a junior, and his older brother's son, Howard Jr., a sophomore. And when Jermaine looked to the sideline, the first person he saw was another older brother, Derek, who's a Maryvale alum and an assistant coach.
Funny, Jermaine thought. If the Williams clan walked off the football field, Maryvale would have had trouble fielding a competitive team.
"It's a football family, and I've watched these guys grow up," says Maryvale 12th-year head coach Tom Bruney. "I certainly consider [them] family. Their work ethic is a great role model for the younger kids. Especially Jermaine this year having taken his very obvious God-given talent and worked so hard to improve it."
Above all else, an overdeveloped sense of conscientiousness may be Jermaine Williams' lasting legacy at Maryvale. Not his status as the nation's No. 74 recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. Not being named to the 2006 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Not committing to Arizona State as a junior. But rather the fact that he took excellent potential and turned it into exceptional play when it was all on the line.
So, how good a guy — how conscientious — is young Mr. Williams?
"He's cordial, polite and he knows how to treat elders," says Bruney, 42, a former defensive back at Division III Ohio Wesleyan University. "I have a daughter, and I hope one day, when she starts dating, that he's the kind of man she brings home."
It's no surprise, then, that Williams, who in addition to playing defensive end also serves as one of the Panthers' primary ball carriers on offense, takes his role in the Maryvale program plenty seriously, all huddle giggling aside.
"I always wanted to be like my older brother, Derek, growing up," says Williams, whose cousin, Levi Jones, is an offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals. "And now I have my little brother coming up and other family members around, and I want to be a good role model for them. I don't want to do bad things and get into bad habits and make mistakes. I don't want to let anyone down."
Fat chance. Williams' game is entirely up-tempo. His skills as an outside pass-rushing threat are stunning. He consistently uses explosive quickness off the ball, excellent top-end speed and old-school deception to beat opponents. And his power rush is such a threat that you'll often see him catch an offensive lineman over-committing to stop a frontal assault, then burst on by as his defeated opponent falls forward into a void.
All that talent makes Williams' junior season — a campaign during which he was disappointed after recording 80 tackles and 12 sacks on defense and 1,300 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on offense — that much more regrettable. And, it seems, that much more of an aberration.
"He had a great freshman year and an outstanding sophomore year, and then last year was not so good," says Bruney, who has led the Panthers to the Class 5A Division 1 quarterfinals four times and has produced 19 Division I scholarship players in his tenure. "I think he got overwhelmed by the attention and the recruiting process. He lost focus because he didn't have the maturity he has now. I think it was a godsend that he committed early to ASU."
Williams played out the 2004 season and, determined to elevate his game, went to work.
"Last year, I focused too much on offense and allowed my defensive skills to suffer," says Williams, who will turn 18 on Jan. 10. "I felt I had a bad season. I wasn't in the best shape I can be. I wasn't as focused, as intense as I needed to be on every play. Everybody was talking a lot of negatives about me. My goal all offseason was to make up for last year."
The results have been spectacular this fall.
"He finally found himself in terms of technique," says Bruney, who notes that Williams will become the first four-year letterman in school history at the end of this season. "The light bulb has finally gone on. He's very difficult to block because he knows how to use his hands, he uses leverage well and he's phenomenal at reading blocking schemes. The combination of experience as a player and taking pride in his work ethic on and off the field has allowed him to master the methods we've taught in our defensive scheme."
Regardless of the defensive play calling, it is Williams' skills and commitment to delivering upon them that allow him to cause havoc. Teams that choose to run plays away from him watch in horror as he runs almost everything down from behind. Teams that run right at him quickly discover that not even a very good high school offensive lineman can handle Williams one on one.
In the final analysis, Williams believes his ongoing evolution as a player has as much to do with knowing his role as it does fulfilling his role. Not unlike being part of a family.
"Honestly, a lot of my success this year has come from just not flying up field on the rush and taking myself out of plays," he says. "I stay in my lanes now and keep containment. I go real hard on every snap. I wasn't taking advantage of that explosiveness last year. Now, it's a different story."
But a story that remains in the family.