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October 20, 2010

Australian Williams eyes big future at 'Bama

YUMA, Ariz. -- On a broiling day in Yuma (is there any other kind?), a friendly Arizona Western College student directs a visitor to a dirt parking lot and points past a couple of tall saguaro cacti to a nearby sheet-metal building that houses the football office.

"There it is," the student says. "Who are you looking for?"

"Do you know Jesse Williams?"

"Everyone knows Jesse," the student replies.

Then he adds a caveat: "Well, everyone that keeps up with football knows Jesse."

Not quite everyone. But just wait another year or two.

If the opinions of scouts and recruiters are accurate, it's just a matter of time before everyone who follows college football will know Jesse Williams.

Right now, Williams, a defensive tackle, is the No. 1 junior college player in the nation. He's an Australian whose mocha-tinted skin is covered in tattoos of rosary beads, inspirational speeches and tributes to his mother and father and who possesses a 550-pound bench press and a 4.9 time in the 40-yard dash.

"As soon as people saw me, they didn't think I fit the stereotype of Australia," Williams says. "They thought I'd look like Steve Irwin [the late "Crocodile Hunter," who had flowing blond hair]. But my mom is Aboriginal, from Thursday Island in the Torres Straits. It's kind of like the American Indian part of Australia."

Williams is 6 feet 3 and 320 pounds, but unlike many linemen, he has no gut. Rather, he looks like he's been pumping iron since birth. But he doesn't have the appearance of a body builder and comes off as more powerful than muscular.

"He has a big upper body and small legs," Arizona Western defensive line coach Dan Moore says in the coaches' office. "He has linebacker legs."

"A big linebacker," shouts a voice from another room.

"He has great feet. The kid can run from sideline to sideline and he can bench press over 500 pounds," Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick says. "He's a big kid, with a big upper body but a small lower body.

"He was built to play football."

From 'Down Under' to Tuscaloosa

Williams' combination of size, strength and agility has set him on an improbable journey that has led from Brisbane to southwest Arizona and eventually will see him land in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It's not enough that Alabama coach Nick Saban routinely attracts top recruits from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. Now, he's getting the best prospects from Australia, too.

Some have compared Williams to former Tide defensive tackle Terrence "Mount" Cody, the massive run-stuffer who starred at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before earning All-America honors at Alabama. Cody was a second-round selection of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2010 NFL draft.

Minnick suggests those comparisons aren't fair to Williams.

"He's a better athlete than Terrence Cody," Minnick says. "He can play all three downs. Terrence Cody was a one-down guy, maybe a two-down guy. He couldn't rush the passer. Jesse can.

"We've had a couple [scouts] in here that said [Williams] ... could be a first-round pick in the NFL draft."

That might be dismissed as bias from a coach -- except that opinion seems to be shared by most analysts.

"Pretty much everyone I have talked to regarding Jesse Williams expects him to play on Sundays, and the film I have seen certainly leads to the same conclusion," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell says. "For a kid his size, he has very quick feet, good balance and the ability to stay clean through double-teams, chop blocks and other attempts to get him on the ground.

"He can run for a massive lineman and can work his way down the line of scrimmage or even to the outside in space to make plays."

Inside Minnick's gloriously air conditioned office hangs a whiteboard listing all the Arizona Western players being recruited and the programs that have shown interest. Three or four schools appear under most names; there are 26 listed under Williams' name.

His position coach is Moore, who had 21 tackles and two sacks for Wisconsin last season; he wishes there were one more school listed for Williams.

"I would have loved for him to go to Wisconsin," Moore says.

Getting acclimated

Williams' talent raises the obvious question: How did he end up at a junior college in the desert halfway between Tucson and San Diego?

You have to go back to August 2008, when the Australian National Team visited Yuma to scrimmage Arizona Western as part of a tour of the United States.

Williams, who had played linebacker and running back -- yes running back -- on his club team in Brisbane, wasn't on the team. The Australian players had to fund the trip themselves, and he didn't have the money to travel halfway across the world. Williams' father, Arthur, runs a sports equipment store and his mother, Sonia, is a school teacher.

On the visit, Western Arizona defensive coordinator Jerry Dominguez struck up a friendship with Australia coach John Luds. Eventually, Luds extended Dominguez an offer to visit Australia and help coach the junior national team that was preparing for a World Cup of American Football game against New Zealand.

Dominguez saw Williams, then 17, at the first practice and immediately wanted to offer a scholarship.

"Once I saw him, obviously I was impressed with his size because he's so massive. But he was quick, too," Dominguez says. "I called Coach Minnick and said, 'We've got to offer this kid.'

"He was only 17 and had only been playing organized football for five years. But he was very quick off the ball, and he had great footwork from playing basketball and rugby."

Williams played well in the World Cup games and eventually was offered a scholarship to Hawaii. Though he had qualifying SAT scores, he didn't have the core curriculum required by the NCAA to play Division I football. So, he signed with Dominguez and Arizona Western, and packed his bags for Yuma.

"It was hard the first couple of months," Williams says. "I'm a beach sort of a person and we're nowhere near the ocean. And the heat kind of shook me. It took me a couple of weeks to get acclimated to it."

Williams adapted but never has completely fit in. That makes Minnick happy.

At the least, Williams is expected to earn junior college All-America recognition, and Minnick is hopeful that's as far as Williams' Americanization will go.

"I told him. 'Don't get Americanized,' " Minnick said. "Too many American kids expect you to give them everything. They have talent, but they're lazy. Jesse asks me, 'Why don't these guys work out?'

"He has the talent and he's not lazy. He keeps working at it."

Too many American players, especially in junior college, aren't dedicated, Minnick says, and don't put in the hard work in the weight room. Williams puts in so much time in the weight room that his mail should be delivered there.

Williams admitted he was surprised by some of his teammates' lackadaisical approach.

"I came over here expecting players to be more determined," he says. "But they have different things in life. Some people just breeze through life. I'm more determined."

He had to be. Football is a club sport played by very few in Australia. It's not offered in high schools and no college scholarships are available there. There aren't many role models, either. DatabaseFootball.com lists seven Australians that have played in the NFL. Six have been punters, including current players Mat McBriar of the Dallas Cowboys and Ben Graham of the Arizona Cardinals.

Big-time dreams

After graduating high school, Williams spent a year working as a landscaper. It didn't take long to realize he wanted something better. He saw football as a means to get an education, pursue a degree in international business and get a better life.

He never dreamed how much better it could be. The idea that football could be a lucrative profession was, well, foreign to him. Yet if the analysts' projections are correct, Williams could be a millionaire in a couple of years.

"Honestly, I don't think about that," he says. "It's popped up in conversation from time to time. Coach tells me about it. But I came here to America to go to school. It never dawned on me [football] might be a career."

Others saw the possibilities after Williams had a strong freshman season at Arizona Western, when he had 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. That got the attention of big-time FBS coaches.

"He really had no clue about recruiting," Minnick says. "He knew about Alabama and USC, but when Penn State called, he said, 'Who's Penn State?'

"He had no clue. He didn't know what football programs were good."

Williams received some help from teammate Andrew Power, a 6-5, 262-pound tight end from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who has tried to educate Williams on big-time college football.

"Apparently, Tennessee and Alabama are fierce rivals," Williams says.

Yeah, something like that. Power is a Tennessee commitment, and Vols fans better hope he's better at catching passes than he is at recruiting.

But trying to lure Williams away from Alabama would have been futile. He knew Alabama won the national championship last season, and if you're going to go halfway around the world to play football, you may as well play for the best.

Besides, playing for Alabama will allow his parents, who are obviously pleasantly surprised by the opportunities given their son, to watch him play. "My parents have ESPN," Williams says, "so it helps that Alabama plays a lot of big games."

And, of course, it's difficult for anyone to out-recruit Saban. He can be incredibly persuasive -- even on a computer. Saban did not make a trip to Yuma, but made a recruiting pitch to Williams via Skype.

Saban made quite a first impression on Williams. So did Alabama's fans.

Williams' commitment became solid when he took a recruiting trip to Alabama on Sept. 4 for the Crimson Tide's opener against San Jose State.

"At the game, I went past the student section and they started chanting my name," Williams says. "There were young people, elderly people and middle-aged people. I was wondering how they knew who I was. That shocked me a bit."

Williams wouldn't have been shocked if he knew more about Alabama, where everybody follows college football. And everybody that follows college football is going to know about Jesse Williams.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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