Alabama's Williams thriving on line as freshman

Credit: Vasha Hunt

Credit: Vasha Hunt

Jonah Williams never got caught up in recruiting rankings. And he knew that his high school success assured him of nothing once he arrived at Alabama.

He doesn't dwell on the praise. But there's lots of it.

Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson thinks Williams is better than he was as a freshman. Crimson Tide offensive line coach Mario Cristobal calls his young right tackle "the best I've seen."

Williams, a 6-foot-5, 296-pound freshman, tries not to even consider the sentence "starting right tackle for the defending national champions." But that's what he has been all season and will be when the Tide plays No. 2 Clemson for another title Monday in Tampa, Florida.

"That's been my whole process for the past two years, ever since I started getting heavily recruited," Williams said before the semifinal game against Washington. "My friends, my parents, coaches, everyone was always — not putting me down or keeping me down, they're very supportive of me — but it's like, 'You're doing a really good job against this high schooler that's going to go to technical school after this. You're about to be going against (Alabama defensive end) Jon Allen and all these guys in practice and all the superstars and incredible D-lines in the SEC.' "That was always the thing for me, is that, yeah, you're doing well but there's someone better."

Like Robinson, Williams has started every game as a freshman. Both were five-star prospects, and now Robinson is a unanimous All-American and projected high first-round draft pick.

"I have to give it to him. He was probably better than me," Robinson said. "I was just raw. I was just out there playing. I think he's probably a little bit more focused and disciplined."

Bearded and analytical, Williams doesn't really look, sound or play like a freshman. He skipped the prep all-star games so he could enroll at Alabama last January and practice for a few days before that national championship game versus the Tigers.

That provided him with an early welcome-to-the Southeastern Conference moment a few hours after arriving on campus. With loudspeakers blasting in crowd noise, Williams was a little slow moving and linebacker Tim Williams blew by him.

"I'm like, 'Oh my God,'" Jonah Williams said. I'd never gone against a guy that fast. I think that was probably the biggest 'oh crap' moment for me."

By fall camp, he was more comfortable. Williams prepared for his first game against Southern California partly by watching Robinson's Alabama debut at left tackle against West Virginia.

He said Robinson provided "a great template" of how to succeed as a freshman lineman in the SEC. Cristobal, for one, wasn't surprised that Williams has consistently excelled so early. He visited Folsom High School during a recruiting period where he wasn't allowed to talk with recruits.

Cristobal said everyone at the California school sang Williams' praises. The film wasn't bad either.

"I think my 7-year-old could have watched his film and said, 'Yeah, we need to go this guy,'" Cristobal said.

Now, Cristobal calls him the best tackle he's been around, then backtracks just a bit to include Robinson. "Those two are the best that I've ever seen," said Cristobal, a former FIU head coach and Miami Hurricanes assistant.

It's not just Williams' talent that sets him apart, the coach said. He also calls him a football junkie, who would respond to Cristobal about high school games with lengthy, very specific texts that included detailed self critiques.

"He's humble and hungry. He's ambitious," Cristobal said. "Every time you communicate with him, it's 'I'm on my way to the gym.' Or, 'I'm going to eat half a chicken and four baked potatoes.' Everything he does is geared toward greatness."