USC defensive end Leonard Williams projects to go early in the NFL draft, with a top-three selection likely. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
Photo: Mark J. Terrill
Photo: Mark J. Terrill

Williams’ rugby skills will become handy in the NFL

The former USC defensive lineman, who many consider the top player available in the coming NFL draft, was too big to play youth football, so he took up rugby.

“I was in the scrum, but I was at the back of the scrum,” Williams said. “I played eight-man (rugby). I was able to run the ball a lot. That’s why I liked rugby so much.”

The versatile Williams won’t be running much in the NFL. His primary tasks will include stuffing the run and chasing down quarterbacks, something he was extremely proficient at over three seasons for the Trojans.

“He can do anything that you want him to do,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He can play up the field. He can do that. He can dominate at the point of attack with his strength. He’s outstanding with his hands.”

Of the interior defensive linemen eligible for the draft, Williams, Washington’s Danny Shelton, Oregon’s Arik Armstead, Texas’ Malcolm Brown and Florida State’s Eddie Goldman are considered potential first-round picks.

“It’s a very, very good group of defensive tackles,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.

Williams, who played high school football in Daytona Beach, Fla., enjoyed his time as a rugby maven. As he got older, the size that kept him out of football would benefit him.

“There was a weight limit, and I was above it,” Williams said. “As a kid it made me really sad. … To not be able to do that was hard. But my dad told me it was going to pay off one day. It did. The weight limit was 180.”

By the time Williams was in middle school he weighed 210 pounds, 30 over the limit.

“I actually played rugby for a little while,” Williams said. “I actually liked rugby a lot. It taught me the ‘physical-ness’ before I got to football.”

He played immediately as a freshman at USC and developed into a dominate force before declaring for the draft after his junior season.

Williams doesn’t try to pattern his disruptive style of play after any one player.

“I try to be mostly myself as much as possible,” Williams said. “At the same time one guy I look at a lot is J.J. Watt. He’s been one of the best defensive players in the league for the last few years, and he’s very versatile, like I see myself.”

While Williams will fit most 4-3 teams as a tackle, some of the 3-4 teams will place him at defensive end. He prefers playing end in the 3-4.

Williams likely won’t slip past Jacksonville, which has the third pick. Tampa Bay appears set to take one of the quarterbacks with the first, and Tennessee picks second.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Williams said. “I haven’t gotten to think of where I’m going to be in the future.”

Williams does not expect an easy climb to stardom in the NFL.

“I’m going to be playing across (from) guys that have been doing this for a living,” Williams said. “They’re grown men, and I’m 20 years old about to join the league. I have to compete with these grown men who have been doing this as a profession for a long time. It’s going to be a hard competition.”

There are no major flaws in Williams’ play, but some folks knocked his effort in a game against Stanford last season.

“He had a high ankle sprain in practice that week,” Jeremiah said. “He came out for warm-ups. He came off the field. He was not supposed to play, but he goes out there, guts it out and plays on a bad wheel. He wasn’t explosive because he was on one leg.”

Williams already has a cool nickname. He’s called “Big Cat.”

“I really don’t know where the nickname came from, but I think (from) the announcers,” Williams said. “It’s pretty cool. I took it and ran with it. I like it so far.”

There’s some depth among the tackles.

“Derrick Lott of Chattanooga is another guy that you’ve got to keep an eye on,” Jeremiah said. “Carl Davis had an excellent week at the Senior Bowl, from Iowa. There are a lot of those guys who can play.”

Lott, who played at North Cobb High, started his college career at Georgia.

A small-school player to watch is Caushaun Lyons from Tusculum (Tenn.)

“He’s a fun player to watch on tape,” Jeremiah said.

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