For Leonard Williams, his first year playing in a USC uniform couldn’t have gone much better. Part of a defensive line that racked up an impressive 38 sacks this past fall, he amassed 64 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss on his way to collecting Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. Not bad for a guy just a few months removed from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland.
But it’s spring now, and for Williams, his initial season is a distant memory. Not interested in reflecting for even a second, he’s focused instead on the future and his continued development, with the improvement of the team at the forefront of his thoughts.
“I’m not looking in the past,” Williams said following Tuesday’s practice. “I’m looking forward. We have a new defense and a new defensive coordinator, and we’re all just working together to try to make this defense work.”
And so far, Williams has been one of the most consistent pieces of that effort. Currently standing 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, he’s only five pounds heavier than what he played at in 2012. Thanks to some hard work this offseason, however, he certainly appears more solidly put together, and there have also been noticeable differences in terms of his performance on the field.
“I didn’t gain a lot of weight, but my body has changed,” Williams said. “I feel faster and my endurance is up. I can run longer for a longer period of time, and practice at a high level for a longer period of time. Last year, at the end of practice, I would be worn out and ready to go to sleep, but now I’m fine.”
One of the team’s biggest advocates of Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 defensive scheme, Williams has made a seamless transition over to defensive end from the three technique defensive tackle spot where he lined up last fall, feeling more than at home at the position that he actually starred at on the high school level.
“I was originally going to play defensive end when I first got here, but then I moved inside to defensive tackle,” Williams said. “I feel comfortable at defensive end. I feel good there. I really like this defense as a whole because we have a lot of blitz packages, so someone is going to get free. So far it’s been going really good.”
With Williams part of a talent-laden collection that also includes defensive end George Uko, nose tackle Antwaun Woods, and outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard, the entire defensive line has thrived under the attacking philosophy of the new defense. And it’s the group’s close-knit bond that has played a particularly vital role -- something that should come in handy as they continue to gain responsibility.
“There’s definitely competition, but at the same time we all look out for each other,” Williams said. “We’ll come in the meeting room by ourselves, help each other out with the plays and help each other out with the calls. Coach Pendergast doesn’t want us to huddle any more -- he wants the defensive line to know the plays, he wants the linebackers to know the plays ... the secondary, everybody. So we just all work together.”
One particular player Williams has taken a special interest in helping along is one of the team’s newest additions, early-entrant nose tackle Kenny Bigelow. Having just enrolled at USC in January, the Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy product is still in the early stages of becoming acclimated to life as a college football player, something Williams can relate to.
“I feel like I’ve taken Kenny under my wing,” Williams said. “When he first got here we bonded. I was his host on his official visit, so ever since then we’ve been pretty tight. And I’ve been coaching him up and trying to help him out as much as possible. I’m still a young guy too, so I’ve still got a lot to learn from Devon [Kennard] and those guys myself, so we’re just all transferring around whatever we know.”
With teamwork like that, there’s certainly reason to believe that Williams, as well as the entire defensive line, will only continue to bring his game along. And above all, that’s the ultimate goal.
“I’m not really caring about personal stats,” Williams said. “I just want us to look like a good defensive line group as a whole -- for everybody to know their assignments, for everybody to do good, for everybody to work together and for everybody to communicate. I just want us to perform as a whole.”