In one of the biggest surprises of fall camp, Chavis Williams was named the starting Sam linebacker Monday afternoon by head coach Nick Saban. Considering that Williams may be a bit of an unknown commodity, here's a bit of a primer in advance of the season opener this upcoming Saturday:
Chavis Williams is a product of Dora High School, where he starred on both sides of the ball, who signed with Alabama in Nick Saban's first recruiting class. He first started to make waves as a junior in high school, where he recorded 81 tackles and 9 sacks at defensive end despite only playing in nine games. The following year in his senior campaign, however, he really took off. As a senior he notched 123 tackles and 11 sacks as a defensive end, and added nearly 400 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns as a tight end on the offensive side of the ball. He helped lead Dora deep into the state playoffs, and for his effort he was named a first-team all-state player by Alabama sportswriters. Moreover, Williams didn't feast on the typically low level of Walker County competition (more on that later), he was in 4A, didn't play many teams from within the county, and faced some decent opponents. He was a kid with a long frame and a lot of quickness, all of which made blocking him a difficult task.
Yet, for the most part, no one made a serious play for him, and he didn't pick up any early offers. Arkansas actually found him first before anyone else, and thinking he'd found a diamond in the rough, Houston Nutt quickly extended an offer. Williams quickly accepted and originally committed to the Hogs on Halloween of 2006. Alabama and Auburn quickly jumped in with offers after that, but he stayed with Arkansas. When Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa in January of 2007, he put a renewed emphasis on Williams, and he finally convinced Williams to flip to Alabama in early February, mere days before National Signing Day.
For their part, the self-proclaimed recruiting "experts" never became convinced. None of the major recruiting services even had a basic profile of him prior to his commitment to Arkansas, even though they routinely "evaluate" in excess of 5,000 prep prospects per year. In the end, Rivals had him as a middling three-star, Scout.com had him as a two-star, and neither had him as one of the top twenty prospects in the state. The recruiting services spent their time focusing on two similar prospects high on Alabama, Alex Watkins and Kourtnei Brown, both of which have been busts to this point in their respective collegiate careers.
So why did Williams fly under the radar? This is all conjecture on my part, but I would submit the biggest reason was probably where he came from. For those who don't know, Dora is a sleepy little town of about 2,000 people located in rural Walker County (well, relatively anyway, it's all rural in Walker County), and as someone who spent his formative years growing up in the area, I can attest first-hand that it is effectively a wasteland of prep football talent. On a per capita basis, it probably produces less football talent than any other county in the state of Alabama.
A few BCS conference players have came out of the county over the years, to be sure, but 'Bama products (and SEC products in general) have been very few and far between. To the best of my knowledge, no one from the county has meaningfully participated at Alabama since Griff Redmill in the late 1990's, and before that you would have to go back to the early 1990's with Brian Diehl and Chad Key (both walk-ons, if I remember correctly). Linnie Patrick was the only super-recruit to come out of the county in decades, but he failed to live up to the hype, and the last recruit of any real billing was Adam Cox in the 1996 class, who was unfortunately a recruiting bust who never found a position in Tuscaloosa.
If you're a potential college football prospect, you would probably be hard-pressed to find a worse area to come out of. Given the dearth of talent traditionally produced in the area, you know that the local schools and prep products receive almost no attention from college coaches, football scouts, and the recruiting services. Truth be told, you could probably be a good prospect with a bright future in a big-time conference, all the while largely flying under the radar screen. Contrast that to, say, a kid coming out of Vigor... you come out of there and you've got scouts lined up to watch the junior varsity play. If you're a big-time prospect in the state of Alabama, you want to come out of somewhere like Mobile, or Birmingham, or Gadsden, or, hell, anywhere but Walker County.
But alas, that is where Williams came from, and again in hindsight it's a bit hard to see exactly why he wasn't a bit more highly-touted than he was. He didn't have the pedigree of a truly elite product by any stretch, mind you, but given his prep production, his measurables, and his offer list, you would have expected him to have received more billing than he did.
When he arrived on campus, we tried to convert him over to linebacker. He played defensive end in high school, but despite his 6'4 frame, no one had any real delusions about him adding the necessary 75+ pounds that he would have needed in order to play that position in Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme. And, not surprisingly, it was a difficult transition. Ideally, we would have simply redshirted him as a true freshman, but the complete lack of the depth on the 2007 team precluded that as a possibility. He played in several games as a back-up linebacker and on special teams.
The next two years were largely hit and miss. He played a lot against Clemson in the 2008 season opener, racking up a big sack of Cullen Harper along the way. In fact, he played quite a bit in the first month of the season, and again as a pass rusher against Tennessee, but after that he inexplicably disappeared. 2009 was somewhat more of the same. He played on special teams and saw some meaningful playing time as a pass rusher in some big games -- Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, etc. -- but never consistently saw playing time.
Coming into the 2010 season, most expected that Jerrell Harris would take over the starting position at Sam. After the second scrimmage, however, Harris moved inside to the Will position, at which point it looked like Williams may get the starting job at Sam after all. And indeed that came to pass. I'm sure it was far from an easy journey for him to make the transition to linebacker, but three years later he has successfully done just that.
Fortunately for Alabama, Saban himself explicitly noted that it was Williams' progress that allowed for Harris to be moved inside, so this is a move being made out of a position of strength, not a move being made for the shortcomings of other players at other positions. Williams may be a bit of an unknown commodity, but if he showed well enough this fall to effectively force the likes of Chris Jordan and Nico Johnson to the bench, then you should be able to safely assume he'll play at a high level in 2010.