Hybrids have evolved beyond biology and automobiles. They are now a common feature in football.
The nickel back who can play both safety or corner; the tight end who can be flexed out to a wide receiver’s position, a la 2012 John Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert; the running back who can also be the slot receiver to create matchup problems …
In 2013, one of the top hybrid figures at Notre Dame might be junior Cat linebacker/defensive end Ishaq Williams.
Two years ago, Williams arrived with Florida’s Aaron Lynch and Georgia’s Stephon Tuitt as one of Notre Dame’s “Big Three” five-star, front-line/edge rushers that finally provided the Fighting Irish with “SEC-like” skills along that area of the defense.
Lynch became a Freshman All-American in 2011 before transferring to South Florida. Last year, Tuitt became the first sophomore defensive lineman ever at Notre Dame to earn first-team All-America honors (CBSSports.com, Sports Illustrated and ESPN), or even second-team Associated Press All-America notice.
For New York native Williams, the development has been taking a little more time while acclimating to a far higher level in big-time college football. He was a special teams regular as a 2011 freshman (six tackles) and he became a situational player in the nickel last season, finishing with 22 tackles (3.5 for lost yardage).
This year, he isn’t necessarily in line to become a starter, but Williams has a chance to earn starter minutes as both the top reserve behind senior Prince Shembo at Cat while also lining up at defensive end in situational packages, if not more. He can pretty much be categorized as the fourth lineman when not at outside linebacker.
“We can get him 15-20 more reps [per game], and he’s all for that,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “So he’ll still get his Cat work and he’ll play some defensive end as well.”
“Ishaq is too good a player to have him stand on the sidelines,” Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “We’re trying to get him on the field, trying to get him prepared for that situation. Whether it’s at outside linebacker or end, he’s going to be one of the better guys.”
During spring ball, the listed 6-5, 261-pound Williams — who insists he is 255 — works primarily with defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Diaco. However, on occasion he has been training with Elston at end, especially in the earlier sessions while Tuitt was recovering from offseason hernia surgery.
The Irish defense is almost 50-50 when it comes to how it aligns with three or four men up front, with the Cat serving as the wild card figure in both packages.
In nickel packages, Shembo — praised by Kelly as one of the consistently hardest-working and most productive players on the team — was a defensive end with his hand on the ground last year. He finished sixth in tackles (51), second in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (7.5), and first in quarterback hurries (12), despite not having the prototype size at 6-2, 250. In other situations, Shembo was an outside linebacker who could play in a stand-up position.
The rangier Williams has the agility to drop into pass coverage and the size and strength to rush the passer. His work at end is not about bulking up to the 280- to 300-pound range.
“I don’t want to get any heavier than this,” Williams said. “It’s a good weight for me, I feel like I move well, and it’s enough.”
It’s conceivable that in passing situations Shembo and Williams can be the bookends while on the field at the same time. Facing much bigger offensive tackles is part of the job description anyway for the Cat linebacker, so it’s not like Williams is making any dramatic position switch when he is stationed at end.
“The outside linebackers face those offensive tackles anyway,” Elston said. “I don’t see him getting overwhelmed with power or size because he’s so explosive and long and keeps those guys at arm’s length, and that helps him getting off blocks and making plays.
“When he comes over to end, he’s going to be asked to play how the ends play. In our other packages, it’s not. It’s, ‘Pin your ears back and go.’ He’s got to learn how to play some different things that he doesn’t learn over at the other positions.”
“It’s about giving me an opportunity and taking it,” summarized Williams, who said the Cat position is tailored to his skill sets. “I played a lot of nickel last year. I like dropping [into coverage], I have no problem with it. I like rushing the passer as well. I embrace the role, which is why I like both aspects of it.”
Working with Elston to learn the nuances as a defensive end in packages beyond just the nickel also has helped expand Williams’ football IQ.
“It helps me and forces me to understand the defense more as a whole,” he said. “I know what the Cat does, the nose, the open end … it gives me more opportunities to play.”
This summer, Williams will place a special emphasis on his pass-rushing skills while working with Shembo. Notre Dame finished tied for 22nd nationally in sacks per game (2.62) last year, but the one area on defense that did not rank among the nation’s best was tackles for loss (it was 78th with 5.38 per game).
“He’s one of my good friends,” Williams said of Shembo. “We always work out together, we work on our moves together. Pass rushing hasn’t been my game, and that’s what I want to work at this summer to get it better.”
If that area continues to progress with Williams the way it did with Shembo last season, then 2013 might be The Year of the Cat for the Irish defense.