IRVING, Tex. - Jason Williams has learned. Slowly but surely, he has learned.
Eager isn't the word
After all, a guy who feels confident enough in himself and his abilities to proclaim that he will become a ‘great player' doesn't really feel the need to prove anyone wrong; if he performs the way he feels he is capable, the rest will take care of itself.
"That confidence just comes from me being kind of being underrated my whole career," said Williams, who graduated from small-school Western Illinois, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the new name for Division I-AA. "But now I'm on a greater scale where everybody's on a level playing field. I just want to go out there and prove myself, that's all. Nobody starts off great, but I want to prove that eventually I can get there."
Williams, at 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds, projects both speed and power, and was among the nation's leaders in tackles for a loss each of the past three seasons, recording 42.5 over three years for a total of 190 yards lost. He also tied the NCAA record for most career forced fumbles, totaling 14 after leading the country with six last year. But, typically, the humble Williams downplays his skill in creating turnovers.
"There's really no secret to it, it's just all about practice," said Williams, a Chicago native. "I guess it's kind of like chance. I would say my senior year and probably the back half of my junior year, I probably concentrated moreso on actually trying to strip the ball when I made a tackle, so that helps out a lot. Then there were times when, if you just hit a guy at the right time, when he's in transition or something like that, the ball becomes a little more vulnerable. It's all about chance when it comes to forcing fumbles."
As for the establishment not giving him enough respect, which he attributed at least partially to his lesser-known college, Williams insists he didn't mind being passed over for the Combine while 29 other linebackers were invited instead.
"It really didn't bother me at all," said Williams, who ended up being the eighth LB chosen. "I've always been told that if you have talent, the NFL is going to find you, so one way or another, all roads would have ended up where they ended up. It's not really how you started, it's where you finish."
The fact that he ended up outrunning all but one of the Combine's linebackers, clocking a 40-yard dash at 4.4 seconds when he had his ‘pro day' workout at Western Illinois, didn't bring him any extra satisfaction, he claimed, although he did spruce up the atmosphere by wearing a homemade t-shirt with a message for the scouts.
"It really wasn't about beating anybody, it was just proving that my name should be in the same sentence as those guys," Williams maintained. "I made this shirt, it was just a black t-shirt and the letters read, ‘numbers don't lie,' and it was kind of my own slogan. I'm just an energetic, charismatic guy and I just like to do stuff to entertain, I guess. And the shirt was just a reminder to myself that since I didn't get invited to the Combine, my numbers are going to speak to why I should have been invited."
And although ESPN's draft guru had Williams pegged as a late-round project during the pre-draft speculation, Dallas chose him considerably higher than that.
"USA Today had me projected somewhere in the third or fourth round, but if you want to listen to Mel Kiper and those guys, they had me a little later," Williams said. "The past is the past, I've gotten to where I wanted to get to, so at this point, it's just proving to myself how good I can be."
Besides his speed and strength, another reason he was picked so high has to do with his impressive versatility. Williams played multiple positions before ending up at linebacker, and at Western Illinois he showed that he can play inside or outside ‘backer, stuff the run or bring the pass rush.
"There were certain times in our scheme where I'd be playing inside, other times I'd walk outside of the box, where I'd be lined with the slot receiver," noted Williams, who registered 15 sacks over his college career. "I did a little bit of everything in college."
He was actually more heralded for his offensive abilities back at Chicago's DuSable High School, rushing for 2,988 yards and 35 touchdowns over his HS career and passing for 3,015 yards and 36 TDs as a quarterback. Then, upon enrolling at Western Illinois, Williams was moved to strong safety and contributed on special teams as a freshman, before shifting to weak-side linebacker for sophomore year.
He feels his experience lining up at different spots on the field makes him a better all-around player and more valuable to the Cowboys.
"I guess, if anything, playing those different positions makes me a little more versatile," said Williams, who was a consensus All-American his last two years at Western Illinois. "I guess I don't really see the game like the way other people probably see it. I played it from the quarterback standpoint, so I can kind of read offenses like that, then I played from a safety standpoint, so I can kind of read receiver sets and stuff like that - just playing those different spots just helped me read offenses a little better."
And he believes his familiarity and enjoyment of special teams will benefit him in the NFL, where he knows he is being counted on to make an impact immediately.
"I'm just going to embrace it, I love playing special teams anyway," Williams said. "Pretty much, whatever the Cowboys need me to do in order for me to try to help this program, I'm willing to do it."
Despite his supreme confidence in his abilities as a linebacker, Williams acknowledges that he has a lot to learn and is fully expecting to at least begin his rookie season as a backup that also contributes on special teams. Even with his lofty future goals, he is completely content filling that type of supporting role.
"I'm playing behind a great corps of linebackers already," Williams noted. "At this point, I'm more concerned with just working myself in on special teams and pretty much learning from the guys in front of me moreso than I am about going out there and trying to take a starting spot. I just want to learn the system and get myself acclimated to everything first. At this point, it's just all about getting adjusted."
And while the notion that neither he nor the Cowboys' other 11 draft picks were likely to be starters this season has been generally criticized by the national media, Williams doesn't feel the need to try to prove the doubters wrong about his draft class.
"We have to have a chip on our shoulder, but it's not necessarily because of the way the media has graded the draft," Williams said of his fellow draftees. "We all trust Jerry (Jones) to the utmost and we all trust his judgment. We're all here for a reason. We have to have that chip on our shoulder for ourselves, not to prove anybody else wrong."
Not only does Williams have faith in Jones' judgment, he is also just very happy to be a part of the Cowboys organization, struggling to find the words to explain how excited he was to first pull on a Dallas helmet at their rookie mini-camp May 1.
"I really can't describe it, it was an extreme feeling," Williams said. "Any good feeling that you could think of, that's pretty much what it is - like first off, I'm finally getting to play football again, second off, I'm playing with the Dallas Cowboys, and that's like, ‘Wow.' It was kind of like, ‘Welcome to the NFL.'
"I guess it was kind of meant to be."
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