As Tennessee closes in on the one-week mark before facing Utah State, there are a few surprises on the likely depth chart that few saw coming as projections came out over the summer.
Close to the top of that list of surprises is the emergence of cornerback Michael Williams – who has come all the way from watching games from the student section to potentially starting when the Aggies come to town next Sunday evening.
Williams, however, isn’t as surprised as some to see how far he’s come.
“My expectations for myself have always been high,” said the redshirt sophomore, who is also a member of Tennessee’s track and field program. “I’ve always wanted to play and just contribute to this team. Getting reps with the ones is a big opportunity – I’m just trying to take advantage to it.”
He’s certainly doing just that. It looked like freshman Emmanuel Moseley had locked down the starting outside cornerback position opposite of Cam Sutton throughout much of the spring and early in fall camp. But despite never playing a down for UT coming into 2014, Williams worked his way up to the second team and has now been receiving a majority of the work with the first unit.
With his track background, speed is obviously the first quality that the coaches like about him.
“I think Mike has great quickness, change of direction and suddenness,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek. “I think he’s a good press corner and a good off corner too if he just slows down a little bit – sometimes he’s a little fast. I like Mike’s skill set.”
He doesn’t shy away from contact, however.
“I consider myself a very physical player,” Williams added. “Coming from my brother, he taught me how to be a physical guy. I come from a background where we’re not really soft. I’m from Washington D.C. – they teach you to be a tough guy.”
William’s brother, Madieu Williams, played football for Maryland and had a 10-year NFL career with stops with the Bengals, Redskins and Vikings. Michael Williams was very close to following his path to play for the Terps.
After receiving several major college offers for football, Williams did sign with Maryland to play on the gridiron, but reversed his course when there was a coaching change at the program.
“Ralph Friedgen left, so that made my decision on that because we had a connection,” he said. “I ran track my senior year, actually got a scholarship, and Tennessee gave me an opportunity. When I came here for track, I always wanted to play football. I just came over here and talked to [a football staffer] and they gave me a shot.
“I always wanted to play both sports. I always wanted to set my goals to be one of those guys who could do both things. I came here for track, so coming out here and walking on for football, it’s just another opportunity.”
The dual-sport career didn’t happen immediately at UT. Williams focused on track initially, winning several events and placing in others, specializing in the 400m event. He then remembered how important both sports were to him at the 2012 Tennessee-Florida game. Maybe it was the electric atmosphere that day at Neyland Stadium as College Gameday was in town. Perhaps it was seeing Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel slice up Tennessee’s secondary. But something hit Williams that day as he watched from the stands.
“I saw that game and I was like, ‘man I can still play,’” he said. “And sitting back just watching, I didn’t want to be in the stands anymore. I just wanted to be out there running around and making plays.”
Now he has his chance. Williams starting probably isn’t what many Tennessee fans expected, but it might be just what the Vols need as they try to bridge the gap in speed that’s haunted their secondary in recent years.
He’ll also have a chance to join the ranks of Justin Hunter, Jonathan Wade, Jabari Greer and many others who have made an impact in both sports for the Vols.
“He’s a dual-sport athlete, which we take tremendous pride here in – track and football working hand in hand together,” Butch Jones said of Williams. “We know the great tradition we have here with that. He’s come in and has worked exceptionally hard every day.”