LAS VEGAS — In between practices for the East-West Shrine Bowl, Falcons special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams received an encouraging text message from former NFL coach Jim Caldwell, one of his coaching mentors.
Williams will serve as the head coach for the East team, which is set to play the West in the 98th Shrine Bowl at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Allegiant Stadium.
“I got a text from coach Caldwell saying that he’s proud of me,” Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview. “That was awesome. I was speechless.”
Caldwell hired Williams as a Bill Walsh coaching fellow in the 2015 season. He previously had been a Walsh fellow with the Bears in 2013 and 2014.
“I really appreciate how authentic he’s been for me and helping me out,” Williams said. “The same for (Falcons) coach (Arthur) Smith.”
Williams, who played at Fresno City College and the University of Mary, had been coaching in the outer reaches of college football before getting the spot with the Bears. He was at Winona State, Central Oklahoma and South Dakota.
For the record, University of Mary is in Bismarck, North Dakota.
After stints with the Bears and Lions, then-Chargers coach Anthony Lynn hired Williams as an assistant special-teams coach in 2016. He was a defensive assistant in 2018. He went back to Detroit as an assistant special-teams coach from 2019-20.
Smith hired Williams to be the Falcons’ special teams coordinator in 2021.
“I didn’t know coach Smith prior to coming here,” Williams said. “In two years in working with him, I’ve learned so much as a coach, due to his leadership and his mentorship that is helping me grow in this profession.”
The East-West opportunity is a chance for Williams to show he has potential as a head coach in the NFL.
“At times, I’m speechless because I don’t take these opportunities lightly,” Williams said. “Being a minority coach in the NFL and having the opportunity to lead a team for a week means the world to me.”
While leading the Falcons’ coaching staff at the East-West Shrine Bowl, Williams has relied on the experiences he has garnered with Caldwell and others.
“One thing that coach Caldwell, he’s all about the details because he knows that the details will add up and bring results,” Williams said. “He’s great because I really believe in who he is as a coach.”
Caldwell posted a 62-50 record as an NFL head coach. He led the Colts from 2009-11 and the Lions from 2014-17. He won Super Bowl rings on Tony Dungy’s Colts staff in Super Bowl XLI and on John Harbaugh’s Ravens staff in Super Bowl XLVII.
Williams has used some of Caldwell’s coaching points to help prepare the East team for the bowl game.
“You can be demanding without being demeaning,” Williams said. “That’s something that I take a lot of pride in, and I got that from coach Caldwell. He was a guy that confirmed that for me as a coach.
“Seeing him in a leadership role, a successful leadership role in Detroit. I take a lot of pride in that, and that’s something that I try to emulate day in and day out.”
East wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, who played at Cedar Grove High before finishing his college career at Arkansas, enjoyed his week with Williams and the Falcons staff.
“Practice with the Falcons has been pretty good for me this week,” Haselwood said. “I had a rusty first day. I felt like I showed a little bit more the last few days that I’ve been here. It’s just been a blessing just to be coached by the Falcons. I grew up in Atlanta.”
The East-West game is for talented players such as Haselwood, who was a five-star recruit who committed to Georgia. He ended up signing with Oklahoma and later transferred to Arkansas.
“I know my guys are probably mad at me for leaving the state,” Haselwood said. “But I had to do what I felt was best for me. Things didn’t work out so well at Oklahoma, and I ended up transferring to Arkansas with some of the UGA staff that I was committed to as a freshman and sophomore. Everything just swings back full circle, and I got to show the world what I can do.”
Haselwood said Williams and the staff has the team motivated to showcase their talents for all of the 32 NFL teams.
“You can still get them to play fast and physical, play with great effort, play at a high level, and that’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Williams said.
Getting a whole team ready is much different than preparing the special teams units.
“It’s less coaching football, the X’s and O’s, and it’s more so getting everything prepped so that people can coach football,” Williams said. “People can do the X’s and O’s. Practice structure. Logistics of going from this building to this practice field. The practice diagrams. The format. Situational ball.
“Getting the coaches all on the same page because the more organized that we are as a coaching staff, the better we can coach.”
Williams led the Falcons’ special teams units to a fifth overall ranking in Football Outsiders’ analytics. The units ranked 10th in the special teams rankings compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin.
Williams gave credit to the players.
“I’m very proud of our players for going out there and playing well,” Williams said.
Joe Judge and Harbaugh went from being special teams coordinators to jobs as head coaches. Williams would like to follow that path one day.
“Those guys coached offense or defense before they became that head coach,” Williams said. “I know it is a hard journey because a lot of special teams coaches don’t get hired to become head coaches. My goal is to become a head coach down the road, God willing.
“I know that my No. 1 task is to be the best coordinator for Arthur Smith and the Atlanta Falcons, that’s in the forefront of what I’m focused on. God willing, if I get the opportunity down the road, I know that I will be prepared for that opportunity. I want to make sure that I do the things the right way and get people to do the things the right way.”
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