Sophomore running back George Atkinson III got an up close and personal introduction to the new Ishaq Williams during Friday’s practice. The Irish were in tag-off mode — when defenders are supposed to get to the ball carrier but not necessarily tackle at full speed — when Atkinson took a handoff and broke to the outside of the defense. Williams missed the memo and sent Atkinson flying.
Irish sophmore Ishaq Wiliams is learning what kind of effort it takes to succeed at college.
“I was running in there kind of high and I didn’t lower my shoulder in the hole, and he laid me out pretty good. He’s getting better definitely.” Atkinson said.
The sophomore outside linebacker is bringing a new level of intensity to the practice field this spring, and everyone around him is starting to notice. Williams arrived in South Bend as part of a promising trio of talented freshman defenders. His counterparts, defensive linemen Stephon Tuit and Aaron Lynch, lived up to their hype, but Williams contributed sparingly. The Irish coaching staff said a lack of effort was the biggest thing holding back the five-star prospect during his first fall on campus. That’s beginning to change.
“It’s just learning how to practice, learning how to play. You have to put 100 percent effort into each play,” Williams said.
At 6-5, 255 pounds high school football in New York was a cakewalk for the athletic Williams. He won the state’s Gatorade player of the year award and made the U.S. Army All-American team. Last year he saw the field in 11 games, mostly on special teams but also at certain times at the cat linebacker spot. He finished the year with six total tackles, which was well below his expectations coming into the year.
Williams said the lack of productivity was his wake up call. Toward the end of the 2011 regular season his understanding of the defense starting to come into focus and he realized the amount of work it would take to start playing more. This spring the coaches have noticed his new intensity.
“Ishaq is learning how to practice. He’s learning how to compete at this level and prepare to compete at this level,” said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “There are a lot less plays where he is loafing or not giving effort. There are more plays when he’s giving either the expected level of effort and then also what we would consider to be exceptional effort.”
A better understanding of his job has also helped Williams bring his game to a new speed during the past two weeks of practice.
““He’s getting there,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “The light is starting to go on.”
A clearer path to the playing field doesn’t hurt either. Williams has enough athleticism to be an option at either outside linebacker position, but he has worked solely at the cat spot this spring. The position, which is a hybrid between defensive end and outside linebacker, is a good fit for Williams who played most of his high school career with his hand on the ground. He said getting a chance to get after the quarterback is something he looks forward to.
“I like to rush the passer. I like the fact that I can do that,” he said.
Williams was stuck behind senior Darius Fleming on the depth chart last season. Now he has the chance to earn a starting spot if he continues to work hard. Junior Prince Shembo is the guy to beat currently at the cat position. But with Shembo temporarily sidelined with a case of turf toe that left him in a walking boot this week, the door is open for Williams to start turning his new work ethic int tangible results.