ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tim Williams had studied the tape.
Alabama’s outside linebacker/defensive end watched Michigan State’s offensive tackles closely during the nearly month-long lead-up to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, and what he saw made him shrug. They seemed to enjoy the “big guys that ran up the middle on them” in the Big Ten, he said. But on the other hand, “It didn’t look like they’d gone up against any speed, for real.”
And speed, more than anything else, is Williams’ game.
So the junior pass-rush specialist played into Sparty’s hands in Arlington, Texas, knowing that “they try to sit back and bait you to the edge.” So, he said, he “set them up all game.”
On third-and-12 with less than 4 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Williams went to the edge, shooting upfield to quarterback Connor Cook’s right as he took the snap from the shotgun formation. But after getting right tackle Kodi Kieler going one way, Williams went the other, spinning back inside, back-handing Kieler with a vicious left forearm, sending him to the ground as he wrapped up Cook, who tried to avoid the sack by throwing the ball away. Instead, Cook was called for intentional grounding, Williams was credited with the sack and Michigan State was forced to punt from its own 5-yard line. The kick wound up being returned for a touchdown as Alabama rolled to a 38-0 victory.
After the game, Williams said he felt good.
“I take on the energy of the crowd,” he said. “I just can’t explain it. It’s like a sniper, man. One shot, one kill.”
You can’t argue with Williams’ aim of late. He has five sacks in his last three games and is tied for the sixth-most sacks in the country since Oct. 1 with 10. And he’s done all of that despite not starting a single game.
Williams, you see, is Alabama’s most dangerous weapon on defense. He’s something coach Nick Saban hasn’t had since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2007: a third-down menace and pass-rush specialist with the speed to blow by anyone.
Over the next week, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson will become well acquainted with Williams’ speed. Or at least he should as he prepares for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T in Arizona.
“He better be accounted for,” fellow defensive end D.J. Pettway said of Williams.
Said Williams: “We thrive on guys who like to throw the ball. We know Clemson is a team that likes to spread you out and throw the ball, so I welcome that.”
Williams said that Clemson, like Michigan State, isn't "used to our speed on the edge.”
In fact, not many teams are.
It took time for Williams to mature into his current role. In his first two seasons, he had only 1.5 sacks. He was in Saban’s doghouse often and was passed on the depth chart more than a few times.
He had to learn to show discipline on and off the field, Saban said. Once he did, the rest fell in line.
“A lot of people in our organization have tried to help and he's been very, very productive,” Saban told reporters in November. “It has nothing to do with ability. He's not pass rushing any better than what he did before, he's just more dependable doing his job."
Now, instead of wondering whether he’ll see the field, teammates say they watch him in awe from the sideline.
“What a talent,” said defensive end Jonathan Allen, a starter who leads the team with 12 sacks. “It makes my job easier playing with him. We feed off each other.”
Said Pettway: “The best pass-rusher I’ve ever seen at Alabama. Dude is ridiculous.”
Safety Eddie Jackson remembered one sack in particular that Williams had against Florida, when he said to himself, “Wow, bruh, y’all jump the ball like that?”
“It’s crazy,” he explained. “He’s one of those guys that’s just special, man.”
And Williams’ specialty -- as a pass-rusher who can affect the quarterback -- has been a huge help to Jackson and the rest of the Alabama secondary, which has improved dramatically from the past two seasons thanks to the Tide’s FBS-best 50 sacks.
“He has a big effect,” Jackson said of Williams. “It makes our job easier.”
Jackson said that Williams vs. Watson is “going to be a good one to see.”
“He’s a great quarterback,” Jackson said. “We’ve heard a lot of things.”
Williams, for his part, is ready.
The more Watson drops back to pass, the happier Williams will be.
"That's my type of game right there," he said.