MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Each spring there is always a player or two that catches the eyes of the coaching staff. This spring, that guy might be freshman cornerback Avery Williams.
Williams signed with West Virginia in February of 2010 and delayed his enrollment until this January. The delay did little to slow his progress.
“Since I’ve been out of football for a year I’ve kind of been slacking, but when I found out it was time for me to go I tried to pick up the pace and I knew I was going to be OK,” said Williams.
He’s done pretty well so far, getting some work with the ones alongside senior Keith Tandy. Cornerbacks coach Dave Lockwood has never been against playing young players if they are good enough to play, and it looks like Williams might be good enough to play as soon as next fall if he keeps progressing the way he has.
“One thing you can say about that young man is I love his attitude,” Lockwood said earlier this spring. “He will compete and he’s going to get better because he puts himself into a position to get better.”
Williams played both sides of the ball at Coolidge High in Washington, D.C., earning league most valuable player honors twice as a running back on offense, while collecting three interceptions on defense. He set a school record by scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Anacostia High, producing three on offense and picking up a fumble and returning another for a score on defense.
Despite earning interest from colleges on both sides of the ball, Williams said when he picked West Virginia the plan was always to play defensive back in college.
“Once I signed that slip it was always defense. As soon as I came here it was defense,” he said.
And when Chris Beatty, the assistant coach recruiting him, left after the 2010 season Williams said he never wavered on his commitment to WVU.
“When coach Beatty left here I felt comfortable with coach Lockwood,” he said. “I knew coach Lockwood. Those were the only two I met on my visit besides coach Stew, and when coach Beatty left I felt like coach Lockwood was the best place to go as far as someone to look up to.”
In the three months he’s been in the Mountaineer program Williams says he has worked hard to improve his size and speed. Now on the football field with Lockwood, he’s improving his skills as well.
“Coach Lockwood says I have good footwork and good hip work. I can read the coverages and stuff, but when wide receivers get their hands on me it’s kind of tough to get off,” Williams said. “Those are things I need to work on with Mike Joseph once spring ball is done.”
Williams is certainly getting a lot of practice covering guys with the way Dana Holgorsen throws the football. It also helps having to cover some pretty impressive athletes running around on the other side of the ball such as Tavon Austin, Ivan McCartney and Stedman Bailey.
“I like that we pass the ball around,” Williams explained. “It gets me used to coverages, playing the ball and playing receivers; adjusting to the ball in the air – that’s something that I have to get better at. There was one interception I missed because I misjudged it and Tavon Austin caught it in the backfield and Coach Lockwood got on me about that. I was in perfect position - I’ve just got to make a play on the ball. By them throwing every day in practice it gets me better.”
The next step for Williams will be how well he performs against teams that run the football out of tight end formations – something he has not seen much of this spring – and then recognizing the play-action passes that can come off of those runs.
“The coaches want to see if freshmen like me have the heart to step up and tackle guys like Ryan Clarke, Shawne Alston and Trey Johnson, who also runs strong,” said Williams. “A lot of people have doubts about corners coming up and making tackles, and in this defense here you can’t be a corner that doesn’t want to tackle. You’ve got to bring it. Hopefully that’s what I’m going to do.”
Perhaps Williams’ best attribute is his self-confidence, something all successful corners must possess. Lockwood pointed out one particular instance during a practice earlier this spring when the ball was on the other hash and the receiver lined up to the field side near the numbers, but Williams still confidently walked up and pressed him.
“I liked that,” said Lockwood.
So, where does this unusual self-confidence come from?
“That just comes from the way I was raised,” Williams said. “Life goes on. If somebody catches a ball you can’t worry. Everybody is not perfect. Deion Sanders got balls caught on him, but he went back out there on third down or fourth down and he made the play. A person like coach Lockwood, you can’t show him that you are weak. My being here for three months, I can see coach Lockwood doesn’t like weaknesses. That’s one thing you can’t have at the D-I level – if you put your head down on a fade route they’re going to go right back at you.”
The one bad habit Williams has right now is that he sometimes takes a peek into the backfield when his eyes should be trained on the man he is covering. That is something Lockwood continually reminds Williams not to do.
“I’ve got to keep my eyes out of the backfield,” Williams admitted. “It’s the little things. I thought I had a good practice – I had an interception – but coach Lockwood found one small thing: I had my eyes in the backfield.”
Lockwood is also helping him improve his jams on receivers to slow them down and disrupt pass patterns.
“I always get my hands on them but coach Lockwood says I’m too high. I need to sit down a little bit,” Williams said. “Sometimes he says I open up too quick. Sometimes he says I should shuffle. I get hands on them and I’m like, yeah, I got him but coach Lockwood will find something on film. There are a lot of things that you don’t pay attention to that you need to work on.”
If Williams continues to heed Lockwood’s advice there is no doubt he will continue to get better. Lockwood has a proven track record with young players - just look at how much Tandy has improved since his first start against North Carolina in the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Perhaps Avery Williams is one day destined for a similar path.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik