A Third Wheel No More?

Williams (right) will wear #11 this season

Sophomore linebacker Ishaq Williams looks to join a pair of breakout classmates more often on the field, and in the offense's backfield, next fall.

Ishaq Williams did not display moments of utter dominance as a college freshman. Unlike fellow 2011 early enrollee Aaron Lynch, Williams didn't lead the team in sacks or QB hurries or moments of fan-inducing frenzy.

He didn't star in his role vs. USC and Michigan State like classmate George Atkinson III and he's not the front seven defender everyone has tagged for an NFL paycheck like Stephon Tuitt.

In other words, he was like 90 percent of the freshmen football players across the country last season.

"Just (re)watching last season and how I contributed. It wasn't as much as I wanted," Williams said after playing in 11 games but recording just six stops. "I just understood that last year I didn't do as well as I should have. I came out and thought about what I needed to do better. Now I understand my job better so I can go out there and work every day."

The former 5-star prospect was the first member of his class to hit the field, appearing as the lone freshman on the kickoff return team for the season's opening boot. He logged solid rotation time vs. South Florida that day and the following weekend in Ann Arbor, but meaningful scrimmage appearances thereafter were few and far between.

That is, until he appeared in the red zone during crunch time vs. Florida State in the Champs Sports bowl.

"Maybe toward the end of the season when I didn't get to contribute to the team as much as I wanted to, so I came out here made better effort," Williams said of his focus this spring. "The biggest thing was effort. Then understanding what I have to do.

"I understand my jobs better. I understand the defense and football better. I feel more comfortable in the system to do my job to the best of my ability."

Well-suited for his role

Williams' job is Cat linebacker and, partly due to the absence of junior Prince Shembo (foot injury), Williams has been running with the first unit for the bulk of spring ball. Assuming consistent effort continues, the pair will likely work in congress next fall in the team's base defense and both be on the field as pass rushers in long-yardage situations.

"I like to rush the passer and the fact that I can do that as a (4-3) DE," he noted of the defense's oft-shifting front.

The aforementioned Tuitt has noticed a change in his classmate's approach as well.

"If he wanted to be at the competitive level with Aaron (Lynch) and me, he had to jump right on it," Tuitt offered. "And he's awesome."

Head coach Brian Kelly has seen flashes of Williams' potential; Kelly did little to hide his enthusiasm at the prospects of Williams filling a front seven role.

"He's getting there. He's getting there," Kelly said. "The light is starting to go on. There were a couple instances today where he was matched up with Troy Niklas – its exciting stuff. He has to do it consistently but we know what he's capable of when it starts to come together."

Williams' current goal isn't to start. It's to practice like he'll eventually play.

It's a different competitive level (1 vs. 2). But everyone's competing, so either way, you're getting good work.

"I don't want to think like that," he noted of his current first team status. "I just need to get better and get ready to play every day. Just learning how to practice helps you learn how to play. You have to give 100 percent.

"Last year, I was young, and now I see how stuff is done around here," he continued. "So basically, I'm more comfortable now with the defense and what's expected of me."

Consistent effort and production is the expectation of every defender in Bob Diaco's defense. If Williams can harness the former, the latter is sure to follow.

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