First, there was the play of out-of-nowhere newcomer Jonathan Williams (no relation), a 5-11, 185-pound freshman from Tampa Tech High. Then, there was the fact that the other Williams on the roster was Doug Williams’ son.
An expected camp competition between D.J. Williams and 6-5, 205-pound sophomore Frank Rivers of Fairfield (Ala.) High, by all accounts, wasn’t that close. Reason: D.J., a raw 6-3, 193-pound prospect who attended Tampa Catholic High while his father worked in the front office with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had quickly begun to display canny on-field leadership, made some big throws in practice and — critically — had already earned the locker room’s respect.
But Doug Williams, switching roles from father to coach, had to make sure he didn’t give the impression of favoritism. You risk losing the players, strangers who he’d just begun leading after spending seven years in the NFL, if they think you make such a crucial decision based on family ties.
So, Williams took his time. Put off the media. Gave non-answers. Here’s Williams, as late as Monday of last week: “I think we’ve got a couple of quarterbacks,” he told me, deflecting. “I think as a unit, you’re talking about young guys who are handling themselves well.”
But by the end of the week, as Williams gave the team some down time before the season’s engine begins to roar in advance of opening day, the decision had become clear: D.J. Williams will be Grambling’s starting quarterback at this week’s Port City Classic in Shreveport against Alcorn State.
“They separated a while ago,” Williams finally told me, echoing what many had said after an impressive showing at the preseason’s final scrimmage. “It wasn’t a difficult situation; it was just a matter of trying to be fair to the process.”
D.J. Williams, who also had offers from Western Carolina, Southern and Alabama State before deciding on Grambling in advance of his dad’s return, replaces Anthony Carrothers. The recently transferred 2010 starter completed 93-of-170 passes for 1,443 yards, 7 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for Grambling.
A high-school backup quarterback, D.J. Williams appeared briefly at wide receiver, but wanted to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, the Heisman finalist and former Super Bowl MVP passer. The younger Williams enrolled to gain needed experience under center at Hargrave Military Academy, and led the program to a perfect 8-0 record while throwing for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns. (As a senior at Tampa Catholic, Williams made four catches for 99 yards and one touchdown.)
“I matured a lot on and off the field at Hargrave,” D.J. Williams said, when he committed to play for the Tigers. “I think I needed to prove that I could be a starting quarterback.”
In a way, D.J. had to prove it all over again at Grambling. But a patient approach by his dad made sure that the fans — and, more importantly, the team — saw what Doug Williams saw, maybe from the first.