“He disrupts everything,” coach Adam Gase says of the Jets’ 2019 No. 3 overall pick, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Coach Nick Saban watched from his usual spot on the field, standing behind the quarterback in a salmon-colored suit and lording over his all-22 empire. This was April 21, 2018, the annual Alabama Crimson Tide spring game. In Tuscaloosa, they call it A-Day. This one turned into Q-Day.
As in, Quinnen Williams.
“I just kept seeing 92, like, flash this sort of quickness, beating players and making plays and pass rushing,” Saban told ESPN during a phone interview Wednesday. “I said, ‘Man, Q, is really kind of coming into his own.'”
Williams, a two-year backup on Saban’s long and talented bench, secured a starting job that day. One year and four days later, he was drafted No. 3 overall by the New York Jets — a stunning and sudden rise from “Who’s he?” to “How do we stop him?”
“He never ever disappointed past that [spring game],” Saban said. “He was really something special.”
After wreaking havoc on the SEC, the baby-faced Williams brings his old-school mentality and new-age skill set to the NFL, where he can be a cornerstone player for the Jets. He’s a three-down player who can play multiple positions on the defensive line. He likes the variety because, as he said during a break at this week’s Jets minicamp, “I can spread around my athletic ability and be dominant everywhere for this team.”
No argument from his legendary college coach.
“He came up as a guy who had to be an overachiever,” Saban said. “His disposition was always like, ‘I’ve got something to prove here.'”
Let’s be clear: Williams wasn’t ignored out of high school — he was a four-star recruit, according to Rivals.com — but he arrived on campus as an undersized defensive lineman (255 pounds). He was a tweener, and that caused him to go “unnoticed,” Saban said. Williams had no sense of entitlement; he knew he would have to work his way up Saban’s depth chart. He was a coach’s dream — a physically gifted player with an overachiever’s heart.
“Once his size caught up to what it needed to be to play his position, all that suddenness and athletic ability and quickness became a bit hard to handle,” Saban said. “But he still had the right psychological disposition to be an overachieving-type player.”
Williams played nose tackle at 295 pounds, which is not your typical, stay-at-home run-stuffer. Now he’s listed at 305 — still on the smallish side for an interior lineman. Or is it? The game is changing. This is the Aaron Donald generation, and the old wide body is being replaced by sub-300 pounders with freakish athleticism. Williams is part of a new wave.
“He fits the style of play in this day and age of football,” Saban said. “You don’t need a bunch of great, big old guys who can hold the point. He does that reasonably well, too, because he uses his hands and plays with leverage and he does have enough power, but he fits today’s game better because of his style of play versus what the game has become.”
Some fans were disappointed the Jets didn’t draft an edge rusher in the first round, perhaps linebacker Josh Allen, but the team felt it was important to upgrade its interior pass rush. Why? Check out the AFC East competition.
Quarterback Tom Brady averaged 2.61 seconds from snap to pass, tied for the fourth-fastest release time in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That same style of offense — the New England Patriots‘ quick passing — will be used by the Miami Dolphins, whose new coordinator (Chad O’Shea) is from the New England tree. The Buffalo Bills, too, have a former Patriots assistant running their offense, Brian Daboll.
The best way to attack a quick-throwing quarterback is to generate pressure up the middle and get in his face. The Jets expect Williams to be that kind of game-changer — eventually. They haven’t seen much in minicamp because a calf strain has limited his practice time. On Wednesday, he had no reps in 11-on-11 drills, but the hope is he will be full go by next week for the final few practices of the offseason. He will get a chance to work with the first- and second-team defenses. The third team, quite frankly, can’t handle him.
“He disrupts everything,” coach Adam Gase said. “We have to get him up with those first two groups. … It’ll be more challenging for him. Right now, you can see a difference between his skill set and the guys he’s going against.”
Williams, 21, has impressed teammates and coaches with his eagerness to learn. The other day, he walked up to center Jonotthan Harrison and asked about proper nutrition and diet. He’s always hanging around veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon, picking his brain on pretty much everything from footwork (the first step should be vertical, not horizontal) to post-practice recovery methods.
“He’s in my pocket,” said McLendon, 33, who has embraced the mentor role.
“He basically gave me the blueprint on how everything will be,” Williams said.
Saban called Williams a smart player who always studied opponents’ tendencies and offensive-line splits and stances. He used his football IQ, along with raw talent and an “I’ll show you” determination, to record 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season.
“I think he can be a really good player,” said Saban, who has coached too many of those to list. “Stay focused on the right stuff, stay humble, keep working like you’ve always worked and he can be a good player for a long time.”