Nathan Williams Has Right Tutor in Audition for NFL
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nathan Williams has already beaten the odds.
Photo by Dan Harker
Not many athletes ever come back from the kind of injury Ohio State’s senior defensive end suffered at the beginning of the last season. When the words microfracture surgery surfaced, most people anticipated Williams would never play the game of football again.
At least not at the same level he was playing at in 2010, when he was one of the most disruptive players on a Buckeye defense that shut down Ryan Mallett and the high-powered Arkansas offense in the Sugar Bowl.
He missed almost his entire senior season because of the injury, but it opened the door for him to return as a fifth-year senior under new head coach Urban Meyer. While they clearly missed his intensity on the field last season, there’s no telling where the undefeated Buckeyes would be defensively without him in 2012.
“Nobody plays harder,” OSU defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said this week.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“There might be guys who play just as hard, but Nathan plays as hard as anyone we have. He throws his body around for our defense and for our team and we’re seeing some good results. There’s just some technique things that he knows we need to continue to work on, but he’ll continue to develop.”
Williams hasn’t put up huge numbers this year, not the kind of numbers he would like to have after leading the Buckeyes in sacks two years ago. He has just two of them this year, to go with 2.5 tackles for loss.
That’s not exactly the kind of production Ohio State would like to have from the Leo position, but this year’s defense is so razor thin at linebacker that defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has asked Williams to do much more than any play who has ever played that position for the scarlet and gray.
“I think Nathan’s attitude has been great,” Vrabel said.
“His dedication to the football team has been great and so has his dedication to learning and studying, because we’re asking him to do more like play some linebacker and play some defensive end. He’s committed himself to this football team and doing what’s best for the team and we’re happy to see that.”
When fellow fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino went down with a broken leg against Nebraska, the coaches again turned to Williams. Rather than thrusting a freshman like Joshua Perry or Jamal Marcus into the fray at Sam linebacker, they simply asked Williams to take on another responsibility in the front seven.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I’ve had to do a lot of studying to get Sam down, said Williams, who played some outside linebacker the last two weeks against Purdue and Penn State.
“I didn’t take very many reps last week playing Sam, so it was kind of new for me, but it’s what I have to do at the next level anyway. So I might as well get it done now.”
Playing at the next level seemed like a pipe dream for Williams at this time last season. He was out for the year, and maybe done for his career, but the former PrepStar All-American has reinvented himself after an injury that could have easily put an end to his football playing days.
“Everybody plays this game for different reasons and Nathan is trying to make the National Football League,” Vrabel said.
“He’s trying to come back from a knee injury, and if that’s his motivation, more power to him. But what he’s done is he’s dedicated himself to the team. He’s stayed in shape. He’s working. He’s trying to lead. And if you play hard and you fly around, then you have the ability to lead. That doesn’t mean you’re a captain, that means that you show guys how to play. How hard you play and how you play with effort each snap, that gives you the ability to be a leader on this football team.”
Williams is 6-3, 250 pounds. He has good speed and great strength for a college defensive end, but it’s impossible to predict how he might fit best at the next level. There are so many different schemes on defense, Williams could end up trying to make a team as an end in a 4-3 system or an outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Fortunately, he’s got a guy who did both for 14 years in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs as his mentor and position coach.
“It’s such a great thing to have coach Vrabel as my coach,” Williams said after the Penn State game.
“He did it for so long in the NFL and he played my position, so I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him. Coach Fickell has also done an outstanding job with me, with our defensive line and linebackers.
“Who would have thought Zach Boren would be playing linebacker at such a high level. Credit coach Fickell and our whole defense for supporting him.”
When the Buckeyes were in base defense against the Nittany Lions on Saturday, they had Boren, a converted fullback, at Mike (middle) linebacker and Williams at Sam (strongside) backer. Even Ryan Shazier is more of a hard-hitting strong safety playing Will linebacker right now, but Meyer said Thursday the Buckeyes should get Sabino back for the Wisconsin game in two weeks.
That would allow Williams to go back to doing what he does best.
“I’m just trying to do my job as best I can to free up as many guys as I can, and if I can make plays in the meantime that’s a big bonus,” he said.
“Most of the time I’m dropping, but when John (Simon) and I are both rushing, we feel like we’ve been on a roll and can really bring pressure on both ends.”
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