LOS ANGELES -- A day can’t seem to go by without Leonard Williams landing on another preseason watch list. Announced as a candidate for the prestigious Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland awards, it’s hard to believe that the USC sophomore defensive lineman has just one season of collegiate play under his belt, but then again, that season was anything but typical of your average freshman.
A hulking physical presence whom USC head coach Lane Kiffin has often referred to as an “SEC-style” of lineman, Williams jumped right into the rotation at defensive tackle last fall, just a few months removed from his high school graduation from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland. He ultimately started nine of the Trojans’ 13 games, compiling 64 tackles -- including 13.5 for losses -- on his way to 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors.
After such a stellar showing then, it’s no wonder that Williams has received so much notice heading into the fall. But with his attention constantly focused on the future rather than the past, he’s made a concerted effort not to allow any of it to get to his head.
“It feels good to be getting that type of recognition, but at the same time I realize that’s based off of my freshman year, and I feel like I still have so much more to prove,” Williams said following one of the Trojans’ volunteer workouts earlier this week. “I’m ready to come out this season to do that.”
Williams’ even-keeled mindset reflects a maturity beyond his years, and it’s something that he’s gradually adopted due in large part to the influence of his defensive line coach, Ed Orgeron, who he says is always there to keep him grounded -- especially recently.
“Coach O and I have a lot of short talks,” Williams said. “He’ll walk by and just tell me to keep my head out of the magazines and not to buy into that kind of stuff. He knows that I’m a humble kid and that I work hard, so he just tells me to stay away from that, and that the rest will take care of itself.”
And judging by the way that he’s trained this summer, Williams has certainly taken that advice to heart. Emerging as one of the defensive line’s hardest workers, he’s upped the level of his workout regimen dramatically this June and July, and the difference in his performance and physical build has been noticeable.
“I feel really good right now,” Williams said. “I’ve been getting in two training sessions a day. We have the morning workout with the team, and then after my first class I come back out with a few of the guys and I get another one in. I’m 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds. I’m around the same weight I was this past spring, but my body has changed. I can feel it. My shoulders have broadened out more, my arms are bigger and I feel faster. I trimmed some of the fat and I gained more muscle and speed.”
Now lining up at end in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 alignment, a more physically imposing Williams is sure to be a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks and running backs this fall. But he’s just one member of a defensive line corps that starred throughout the spring at USC, picking up right where they left off after a strong 2012 campaign in which they amassed 38 of the team’s 45 sacks.
Teaming with other key contributors such as outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard, nose tackle Antwaun Woods, as well as fellow defensive end George Uko, Williams believes the group is poised for an even more productive 2013 season thanks to the new aggressive defensive philosophy instilled by Pendergast, as well as the unique relationship that he and his linemates have developed over the course of the offseason.
“I feel like this scheme is made for the defensive line to make a lot more tackles,” Williams said. “It’s working good so far and everybody is liking it. And we have a brotherhood, and I feel like we’ve come together. We hang out off the field so much, and on the field we push each other, and there’s always competition with everybody, but at the same time we help each other out. We’re ready and we’re hungry to get after it.”
With less than three weeks to go before the start of fall camp, the Trojans’ defensive line unit won’t have to wait much longer before they get its wish. And with the belief that he still has a whole lot more to show -- even after having received so much preseason attention -- perhaps no one is more eager to put the pads on and hit the field than Williams.
“I’m not really nervous, it’s more of a ready feeling,” Williams said. “With all of the expectations, I want to prove them right. I just want to come out here and play, and I’m ready for the season to start.”