Kicking it with Tennessee's Dan Williams

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Senior defensive tackle Dan Williams has helped take the Tennessee defense to another level these last few weeks, and in the process, is setting himself up for a nice payday.

William’s NFL stock is soaring. Everybody is looking for disruptive interior linemen who can rush the passer, and the 6-3, 320-pound Williams certainly fits that bill.

"Our defense starts with Dan. He's a dominant force and making himself a lot of money," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said.

In the latest position rankings by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Williams was third among all senior defensive tackles in the country. He’s also making a strong bid for first-team, All-SEC honors.

Williams is third on Tennessee’s team with 39 total tackles, including three for loss, and leads the team in quarterback hurries with nine. Seven of those hurries have come in the last four games.

His play up front is a big reason the Vols have been as good as any defense in the SEC heading into this stretch drive.

Williams, who's as easy-going off the field as he is intense on it, took some time to chat earlier this week heading into Saturday’s home game with Memphis:

You’re playing the best football of your career. What do you attribute that to?

Dan Williams: For one, I’m in the best shape since I’ve been here, and that’s showing out there on the field. I’m improving every day, practicing harder, doing everything it takes to be a good football player.

How much better are you moving at the lighter weight?

DW: I’m around 320 right now and able to last a lot longer out there and play a whole lot harder. When I first got here as a freshman, I was 357, but I told myself I was never going to see that weight again. It was just too much good eating. I sort of fell off again after last season when I went home for the holidays and we didn’t go to a bowl game. I got back up to around 340 and wasn’t watching what I ate. But once spring came and the coaches talked to me, I knew had to get back down to be the player I wanted to be and for the good of the team.

What kind of impact has Ed Orgeron had on your development?

DW: He’s been pushing me since he got here. That’s the main thing, and I’ve also learned a lot from him film-wise and about offensive schemes. The main thing, though, is the way he’s driven me every day in practice and helped me become a better pass-rusher.

Back in the preseason, they had you listed with the second team. Were they just trying to motivate you?

DW: I really don’t know. I just know these coaches are going to play the best players. I guess my practice habits weren’t as good, and I wasn’t meeting their expectations. I had to change the way Dan Williams was practicing. The way I practiced with the old coaching staff wasn’t going to get it. I had to get my mind focused and show these coaches that I was one of the better players on the team.

What’s the secret to Monte Kiffin’s success as a defensive coordinator?

DW: I’d say it’s the energy level he coaches with, the way he treats practice and the intensity he brings. He just has this way of being able to explain things to guys where you know exactly what he wants. You might play for some coaches, and they tell you to do something. When you play for coach Kiffin, he gets out there and shows you where he wants you to drop, how he wants you to do it and explains why you’re doing it. I have a lot better understanding now of what the linebackers and DBs are doing and know that if I don’t do my job how much it’s going to hurt the whole defense.

You guys finished tied for third in the country last season in total defense. Is this defense better than that one, and what are the differences in the two defenses?

DW: It’s a different group of guys, and every year I’ve been here, the defense has always run to the ball and played hard. But we’re playing more with a chip on our shoulder this year because none of us ever want to go through what we did last year with the 5-7 record and our coach getting fired.

With the way your offense has improved, do you think you’re that team right now that nobody really wants to face the rest of the way?

DW: I think so. We’re playing for each other. We’re playing hard, and it’s like coach Kiffin always says, ‘Team first.’ Everything we’re doing, we’re doing with the team first. If we continue to play this way, it’s going to be very tough to beat us.