DJ Williams: Path to the NFL Draft
At the end of the 2016 College Football season, DJ Williams was a college football player without a college football team. Cut by Chattanooga, he spent four months searching for not just a new football team, but a new meaning in life. After finding both, he heads to the NFL Draft as a tough-tackling, ball-hawking, cornerback gaining interest from the likes of the Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills.
His football journey is one of two halves in many respects, with those four months providing the change in direction that sees him hoping to hear the phone ring between April 23rd and 25th.
“After my redshirt-freshman season, I had an exit meeting with my coach. Basically, he was saying that they weren’t going to renew my scholarship so you gotta find another school. That was definitely a depressing time, a sad time for me. It all worked out for me, I thank God for that situation. It really just changed the outcome for me and my life in general. I learned a lot off the field in those three or four months. Just sitting at home, just trying to find a school to go. In that time, I really built a relationship with God, which was definitely the best decision I made in my life. There was bad in it, but there was definitely more good in it. I’m thankful for that situation.”
From Nashville to the NFL Draft
For DJ Williams, the path to the NFL Draft started in Tennessee. He was a young kid, inspired at home by his Grandad and surrounded by a flourishing Tennessee Titans team in the NFL. That early exposure to footballing success helped fuel DJ’s passion for the game.
“I really enjoyed watching the Tennessee Titans, being from Nashville. I looked up to those dudes like Steve McNair, Eddie George, just those great players like that who played for the Titans. That was a great time here in Nashville.”
Those players also inspired him as he tried to find his football position on the field. Although he heads to the NFL Draft as a cornerback, DJ Williams played a multitude of positions early in his career.
“Growing up I always wanted to play on the offensive side of the ball. I loved having the ball in my hands. Didn’t really start playing defensive back until high school. I played quarterback at high school, that was fun. I played everything, quarterback, receiver, kick returner, punt returner. You name it, I played it all!”
DJ Williams showcases skills at Smyrna
DJ Williams showcased his football skills for the Smyrna High School Bulldogs. As well as playing multiple positions on the football field, he ran track and played basketball, a true multi-sport athlete. It was clear that football was where he was most blessed, racking up a number of team honours including Defensive MVP as a junior, and Team MVP in his senior season. It was a time for creating a competitive nature and creating lasting relationships.
“Tennessee is definitely a competitive state, and honestly I believe the district that I played in was the most competitive district in the state of Tennessee. It definitely helped me. It was great to be able to play in a district with future DI and NFL players. I never won a championship or anything like that, but I’ll never forget those relationships that I have with some of my high school teammates. I just remember those summer workouts, the hard grind, but happy to workout and getting to hang out with my teammates, that was fun.”
As well as playing just about every position possible at Smyrna, DJ Williams got an experience of playing special teams at a young age. It’s another string to his bow that helps entering the NFL.
“I think it’s definitely important. You’re almost like a freshman all over again. You gotta really just get in where you fit in. That’s what I want to prove to these coaches that I can play anything. Whatever is going to help the team to win, I’m down to do that.”
An early taste of adversity for DJ Williams
Despite the versatility, All-State honours, and racking up 16 career interceptions during his time at Smyrna, the next step on his football journey wasn’t an easy one for DJ Williams. College Football programs weren’t beating down the door to capture his signature.
“I had a lot of small schools that were looking at me, but I had very few bigger schools looking at me. I ended up signing to a small school called Chattanooga. At that time, Chattanooga was one of the only offers still on the table. I went on a visit there and committed. For some reason, I just kinda got overlooked coming out of high school.”
The two years that DJ Williams spent at Chattanooga helped teach him valuable lessons about life and football. Arguably, without that experience, he might not have turned into the player and person he is today. It started with having to redshirt his first year with the Mocs.
“It definitely was a surprise to me. Like any high school player, when you come out of high school you want to go to whatever college you go to and play. Nobody wants to go to college and redshirt and not get any games. It really just opened up my eyes that I have to work harder. Everybody at the level is either going to be the same as me, or better than me, so I gotta really separate myself someway. It really opened up my eyes to work hard and stay humble at all times.”
The surprise of having to redshirt his freshman season was replaced by shock as he was cut from the program at the end of the 2016 season.
“I was looking forward to coming back next season and proving to them that I could play at that level.”
Finding faith and opportunity
In the four months that followed, DJ Williams returned to Smyrna where he built a relationship with God. He also returned to his high school to maintain his shape, working out waiting for the next opportunity to come along. His allegiance to God and his warrior mentality was born with his twitter handle “GODSWARRIOR”. The two combined to bless him with the next chapter in his football journey, one that ultimately set him on his path to the NFL Draft.
“That was definitely God! I was at my high school working out. Independence Community College came to my high school, but they didn’t come for me. They came for some player who was in high school at the time. One of my high school coaches was talking to their coach and he said “that DB out there working out, he just left Chattanooga and he’s looking for another school. He’s ready to go.” They showed him my film and the next they gave me a call and offered me a scholarship. I’m thankful for my high school coaches. Even though I wasn’t in the program at the time they cared about me so much that they helped me out in that situation.”
DJ Williams finds another chance at Last Chance U
In 2017, Independence Community College would feature in the third series of the Netflix documentary, Last Chance U. It seems fitting that a player who’s dream of playing football had been cut from him, would get an opportunity to have his dream resurrected in such a way. It wasn’t a last chance for DJ Williams, but it was the chance that he needed.
“Playing with those guys that I played with was definitely fun. The dudes that I played with on that team were just some ballers. You look at how many people signed that year. It was one of the funnest times I had in my life. I got the chance to play with a lot of great players. Some went to big DI, some went to small DI, there were nothing but great players and people on that team.”
It was a defining period for Independence College. DJ Williams was a part of a team that delivered the first bowl win in program history as Independence defeated Northwestern Oklahoma A+M in the Midwest Classic Bowl.
“You think about it, that year was the year the whole program changed. Nobody looked at Independence the same. Everybody knew after that year that Independence were the team to beat. It felt good to change the culture around there.”
Transformation and rejuvenation
It was also a defining period for DJ Williams. One year after being cut from Chattanooga he was honoured as a First Team All-American NJCAA after racking up 56 tackles, including three for loss and two sacks, with a forced fumble for good measure. His reputation as a tough-tackling DB was being formed.
“If I was to be honest with you, I had a great DB coach that year man. He really believed in me, saw something in me that I honestly didn’t see at the time. He taught me a lot of techniques and a lot of new things and was able to let me be more versatile and comfortable which led to me making more plays.”
The transformation of DJ Williams is perhaps summarised most perfectly by the comparison of his two recruiting processes. Coming out of Smyrna High School, the process had been slow with few offers. As he left Independence, it was an entirely different process.
There was no being overlooked this time around.
“JUCO was a fun time because it was different to high school. Out of JUCO I actually had a lot of offers. It was definitely fun to see how the recruiting process worked. I had offers like Hawaii, Tulsa, Nevada, all types of schools. That was a blessing. It was good to see my hard work pay off and just to see that everything I went through all had a reason behind it. God had a plan for me the whole time.”
DJ Wiliams finds perfect fit at Utah State
Amongst all the offers, he found program that was the ideal fit both on and off the field.
“I chose Utah State, honestly, because of how I felt on my visit. The players that were there were just so cool to me. The coaches at the time really had a plan for me, really made me feel at home. It ended up working out great for me. It impacted on my life, big time! You look at what I did the first year there. It really put some buzz around my name. It let people know who I was, and I was put in a good position, honestly. I’ll always be thankful for Utah State. Not only football wise. I met a lot of people at Utah outside of football. Different religions, different backgrounds. Those people out there in Utah are great people and I feel like that’s my second home, it really is.”
Serious statistics and bowl game accolades
In his two years at Utah State, DJ Williams has posted some serious statistics. His tough-tackling reputation shows up in the box score, with 114 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and one sack the last two seasons. He’s also flashed his skills as a ball hawk with six interceptions and 18 passes defended. He points to one game that best sums up his time at Utah State, the 2018 New Mexico Bowl. He was the Defensive MVP of the game and was named to the ESPN All-Bowl Team.
“That game right there was one of the best games I ever played in my life man. I know I say it a lot, but it really just goes back to God, you know. Watching over me and answering my prayers. To look back at my journey, and how I got there, it definitely felt good man. I took a lot of losses coming into college, with the whole getting cut from Chattanooga, going junior college. It felt good to see all that hard work, and all those losses, pay off.”
Controlling what you can control
He’s been able to look back to his time at Utah State for advice and guidance as he looks towards the next stage of his football journey, the NFL Draft. Former teammate Darwin Thompson was drafted to the Kansas City Chiefs last year, having travelled a similar route as DJ Williams. He’s now a Super Bowl Champion.
“My room mate last year was Darwin Thompson, he’s my best friend. He got drafted last year. Me and him talk all the time. He basically just lets me know how the process goes. One thing he taught me is control what you can control and stay ready at all times.”
It’s wise advice in difficult times. The Utah State Pro Day was scheduled for March 25th but alongside nearly all others, had to be cancelled. It’s a setback for players that rely on that element of the process to help enhance their reputation as we get closer to the NFL Draft.
“I think it makes it harder for certain players like myself that didn’t go to the combine, that didn’t play in the Senior Bowl or anything like that. It definitely will make it harder, but I don’t think that it’s the end of the world. At the end of the day, scouts are good at what they do. They get paid to do what they do. They should be able to go to the film and be able to tell a good football player by watching film. I got good film, so I don’t think it’s the end of the world for me.”
The tale is in the tape for DJ Williams
That film, alongside some individual workout footage that DJ Williams has been able to post on social media, has helped create some genuine interest from several teams, with the Chargers and the Bills being the two that have held telephone meetings. When they switch on that tape, what do they see and why should they take a shot on drafting DJ Williams?
“I bring versatility to a team. It’s on my film. I can play outside corner, I can play nickel corner. Most of the teams I’ve spoke to like me at the nickel spot which is very cool to me because I love that position. A lot of people in this game can’t play the nickel position, can’t play the slot. Definitely not like I can. I believe that I will be the best nickel in the NFL very soon. I know it’s gonna take some time, take some learning, but I know I have the talent and the traits to make that happen.”
From last chance to the biggest chance
More so than ever, the NFL is a passing league and teams are crying out for cornerback talent that can help defend the pass but also get after the quarterback.
DJ Williams answers all that criteria. He has ball hawk skills to make crucial plays. He is one of the toughest tackling corners in this class. It all comes wrapped up by a mindset that knows how to succeed when the odds have been heavily stacked against you.
Just three years ago he was at Last Chance U. Now he’s waiting for the phone to ring for the biggest chance of his career.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Feature Image Credit: Utah State Athletics
Huge thanks to DJ Williams for taking the time to talk to us. Also to his agent, Jordan Levy, for helping connect us.