Whenever a respected college coach touts a young player as a potential impact player at the next level, NFL scouts take notice, particularly if that player possesses prototypical physical dimensions and exhibits disruptive qualities on the field.
That's why the NFL scouting community has been buzzing about USC's Leonard Williams since former interim head coach Ed Orgeron suggested the junior defensive tackle "is going to be a first-round pick" at the end of his collegiate career.
Orgeron, a respected defensive line coach, has worked with the likes of Warren Sapp, Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland, Shaun Cody and Jurrell Casey as an assistant coach at Miami and with the Trojans, so his opinion carries significant weight in meeting rooms around the league. Thus, scouts are digging hard into the tape to see where Williams needs to improve to eventually become the top pick Orgeron envisions down the road.
Given a few days to take a look at three of Williams' games against quality competition (Stanford, Utah and Notre Dame), here are my thoughts on the Trojans' star defender:
It's hard to find 6-foot-5, 290-pound defenders with the kind of athleticism, body control and agility that Williams displays on tape. He moves likes a running back on the turf, but possesses the size and strength to overpower offensive linemen at the point of attack. Williams routinely outmuscles blockers with power maneuvers immediately after the snap, resulting in sacks and tackles for losses on the interior. Additionally, Williams displays exceptional quickness and acceleration on stunts and games, while also showing tremendous closing speed on open-field pursuits. Given his prototypical size and athletic attributes, Williams is considered a blue-chip prospect simply off his growth and developmental potential.
The NFL is shifting to a pass-centric offensive focus, but defensive coordinators still expect elite defenders to be difference makers against the run. Williams flashes disruptive potential as a run defender, as evidenced by his 74 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He displays outstanding instincts and awareness, but it is his hand usage and overall power that stands out on tape. Williams routinely whips blockers with a quick arm over or "butt-and-jerk" move at the line of scrimmage. He works into the hole and delivers solid shots on runners. When he is engaged, focused and playing with maximum effort, Williams is difficult to block on the interior.
On perimeter runs, Williams shows exceptional short-area quickness and burst. He quickly reels in runners from the backside, displaying the acceleration scouts covet in pursuit players. In a scheme that routinely puts defensive linemen on the move on angles, stunts and twists, Williams' speed and athleticism could make him a disruptive defender at the point of attack.
Pointing out flaws in Williams' game, I would cite his high pad level and inconsistent motor. He frequently stands up tall after the snap, allowing low-leverage blockers to drive him off the ball. Against double teams, in particular, Williams' poor leverage prevents him from holding his ground and clogging the middle. Additionally, Williams' lackluster effort repeatedly shows up on tape. He fails to hustle and chase down the field, and his inconsistent motor prevents him from making more impact plays along the line. If he aspires to be a dominant player at the next level, he must learn how to play with more urgency throughout the game.
The need to harass quarterbacks within the pocket leads defensive coordinators to covet interior defenders with exceptional rush skills. Williams certainly shows the potential to blossom into a dynamic pass rusher at the next level. He displays quick, violent hands in combative situations, while also showing outstanding balance and body control. He uses an assortment of counter moves to work past blockers, which is uncommon for a young defender. Of course, he still needs to refine his primary and complementary moves, but Williams' natural talents as a rusher should make him an effective player as a pro.
Looking at Williams' skills, I believe he is at his best when utilized on stunts and games on passing downs. He has the speed, balance and body control to turn the corner on loops. Most important, he has a feel for getting to the quarterback and coming up with the sack when he has a free run off the edge. Given the importance of making the layup when open, Williams' ability to collect sacks (14 sacks in two seasons) will certainly intrigue scouts around the NFL. If he can continue to master the basics of the pass rush and play with more effort, Williams could be a dynamic interior defender capable of delivering 10-plus sacks annually as a pro.
The top defenders in the NFL have a knack for consistently producing game-changing plays. For defensive linemen, those disruptive plays are in the form of sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Studying Williams' stat sheet, I'm impressed with his 27 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception in two seasons. Those numbers are certainly impressive for an interior defender, particularly a young player still mastering the nuances of the position (Williams was a recruited as a defensive end out of Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida).
On tape, Williams' disruptive skills repeatedly show up in critical moments. He has a knack for coming up with a timely sack or forced fumble with the game on the line. While scouts would like to see him play with greater effort to see if he could deliver more game-changing plays, the fact that he has a feel for the big moment will endear him to evaluators who covet clutch playmakers at the position.
There has been a lot of speculation about Williams emerging as the premier defensive prospect in college football based on his spectacular flashes as a sophomore, but I believe the USC standout is a work in progress at the position. Although he possesses the prototypical physical dimensions and is very productive in several areas, NFL scouts will want to see more consistency and urgency in his play before anointing him as an elite prospect in the 2015 or 2016 class. Additionally, Williams needs to refine his footwork and fundamentals (pad level and hand usage) to become the dominant player that scouts envision when they look at his extraordinary physical tools on tape. When scouts affix a top-10 grade to a player, they expect to see a player that dominates the game with his presence and skills. While Williams certainly "flashes" that kind of talent, he must take his game to another level in 2014 to truly earn the blue-chip label that observers have attached to his name at this point.