TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Karlos Williams walked into the room, briefly introduced himself and within seconds was knee deep in offensive football parlance.
“There are different calls, maybe on the same play. On the front side I might be a free release to the flat with no blocker responsibility,” explained Williams, while probably holding a quiet suspicion his breakdown was hardly resonating with the rest of the room. “If you’re on the backside you might have a leak, or you may just be in protection, period.”
Eighteen months ago, Williams wouldn’t have been nearly as articulate or intuitive about the game of football. He would have talked just as much -- only Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher rivals the senior running back in words per minute -- but the conversation would not have been as in depth, because he wasn’t atop the depth chart.
Fast forward to days before the 2014 opener and Williams will be making his second career start. With him on the plane to Texas will be his jersey, playbook and an 8.5 x 11-inch green, college ruled notebook.
“Always, always” is the notebook tucked under his arm, Williams said.
It is always with him now, but began only during spring practice in 2013, shortly after then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt arrived and demanded Williams pipe down and put pen to paper. Williams never took notes -- in class or team meetings -- until Pruitt ordered Williams to start writing things down.
Williams, formerly a safety and linebacker, played in 25 of his first 26 games at Florida State but did not crack the starting lineup until the 2012 ACC championship and even then it was due to an injury. He wasn’t picking up the little details in Florida State’s defensive scheme. He wasn’t too concerned about learning them either.
“I was very immature when I first got here. I didn’t understand the power of preparation,” Williams said. “I thought you just went out there and did it. I saw Nick Moody play safety, Terrance Parks, Terrence Brooks, Lamarcus Joyner do it and I said ‘How do those guys do it?’ When I look back on it, those guys were sitting in the front row taking notes.”
Williams’ prep status as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound five-star athlete with 4.4 speed caused part of those poor study habits. Williams and his brothers were all superior athletes, and when a player of Williams’ caliber is on the field, high school offenses revert to words instead of plays -- “Just give Karlos the ball.”
Williams played with his brother Vince, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, for two seasons in college. Williams does his best impression of how he looked when he saw how intently Vince took notes -- eyes wide, mouth agape. Vince would take notes without his eyes ever coming off the screen. Williams didn’t understand and didn’t care to figure it out. Vince would rub his eyes to regain focus on the screen while Williams closed his, rolling over to go to sleep.
Pruitt, who has since left for Georgia, expected the same dedication from Williams. Pruitt knew Williams understood the basis of his scheme, but he would continue to toil on the second team if he could not master the defense completely.
“He understood I wasn’t going to be the best if I didn’t take notes. I got the big picture but the little details could have made me a better DB,” Williams said.
So Williams bought a color-coded notebook. Blue was his notes on an offense’s trips package. Red signified if a team was in a four-wide set. Without even seeing his notebook, Williams hand gestures a flow chart, recalling how on the field his mind would flip between colors if the offense sent a receiver in motion.
By the time the season rolled around, Williams felt indebted to Pruitt, and his junior season might have been the year he saw his most extensive playing time. But early in the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back.
He was forced back to just the fundamentals of the game, and he once again was straining his eyes on the big picture. Initially, he thought running back was simple: get the ball and follow your block. But he was blown away again at the details required, the details he watched Devonta Freeman perfect in the hours after practice each day.
It was time for another notebook.
“When I first moved to running back, I focused on what a stretch is and I know what a zone is,” he said, “but I wasn’t focused on the footsteps or how I carried the ball or hat placement.”
That’s what the entirety of fall practice was for, shoring up the minor details that could turn a first down into a touchdown or keep quarterback Jameis Winston upright in pass protection. Williams’ running back notebook is filled with corrections and commendations, audibles and adjustments. If the offense uses a new terminology for a stretch or zone rush, it’s in his notebook.
During Florida State’s first preseason scrimmage, Williams jogged back to the huddle after the first play already with new material for his notebook. He didn’t roll his shoulders carrying out a play-action fake. When Williams opened his notebook, the first line was bulleted and read: “Play-action pass, roll your shoulders.”
This season, Williams is tasked with taking pressure off Winston and the passing game. He said he wouldn’t be prepared for the increased role if not for dedicating himself to writing notes
“It takes initiative to write something down, writing down what you can understand without every word, writing what you need to hear,” Williams said. “It helped me through camp.
“… I learned the lesson the hard way, which is the best way. It paid off for me.”