Travis Fisher admits now that he could have forced a bigger role on Deontai Williams in 2018.
Williams, a Jones County (Mississippi) Junior College transfer a year ago, was a rare juco player with three years of eligibility remaining. His physical skills jumped off the page, but Fisher also had a pair of holdover seniors in Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed, and brought a graduate transfer from Central Florida in Tre Neal to help the rest of the group learn.
“I could have put Deontai in there and made him a starter last year,” Fisher, the Nebraska defensive backs coach, said at the beginning of the Huskers’ spring ball earlier this month. “He’s athletic. He’s probably the most athletic safety I had last year. Last year was all about making the room strong, it wasn’t about making individuals strong. I wanted to have four or five safeties that could play in a football game than to have one safety with experience.”
So Williams essentially served as the fourth among a group of four that played virtually every snap for the Husker defense. His playing time waxed and waned depending on Aaron Williams’ health and the game plan, but mostly he was a part-time player.
“He could learn as much as he could from those guys, plug him in the game when I need him, get him experience,” Fisher said.
That aspect, the learning, might be the most important for Deontai Williams as he enters the middle of his three years at NU.
The first key was to master the playbook. A mid-year enrollee in January 2018, Williams grasped enough to be on the field, but often, coaches say now, freelanced too much.
“He's always played with speed and violence," defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. "The difference for him right now is he really understands what we want to get done. It's not just renegade football. It's not intramural football anymore. It's running stuff within the scheme of the defense, playing within the scheme of the defense, but still playing with that same violence and intensity that he had when he kind of didn't know what he was doing."
Williams still managed to make his share of plays. He was one of three players on the team with multiple interceptions — joining Reed and cornerback Lamar Jackson — broke up a pair of passes, forced two fumbles and recovered another, all while picking up pointers from his position mates.
“What I took from Tre is he’s smart,” Williams said. “He was a coach on the football field and he was a real football player. Being a student of the game — every route coming, every play coming, every run coming. From Aaron and Reed, I just got their suave. Just making big plays, looking around to see if you can help a teammate out and you end up jumping a pick or making a great tackle to help a teammate out.”
He might have to in 2019. Williams is suddenly the most experienced safety NU has — especially when JoJo Domann is playing outside linebacker — and has the inside track for a starting job. Junior Marquel Dismuke has impressed this spring, and then there are a host of young players.
That means Williams has to be more than a “renegade” player. He’s got to not only carry out his own job but also help make sure his teammates are in the right place, too.
“Last year I was learning, so it was a robotic type of me,” he said. “This year, I know everything and I’m moving freely. I’m able to know everything, routes, coverages, all that.
“Now I’m just free and relaxed and having fun.”