Former Early County star Shawn Williams, who attended the Peach State Pigskin Preview with coach Mark Richt on Tuesday, will be the leader of the Bulldogs' defense this season.
MACON — You like goals?
Shawn Williams has one. And he’s not shy about talking about it.
“I want to be an All-American,’’ said Williams, a Early County grad who has emerged as a rock in the Georgia secondary, where he is the only returning defensive back who is certain to start in the season opener.
Williams was on hand Tuesday, along with Georgia coach Mark Richt and UGA quarterback Aaron Murray, at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for the 11th annual Peach State Pigskin Preview.
“(Shawn’s) a leader,’’ said Richt, who knows how important Williams is to this year’s team. Defensive backs Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Seminole County grad and All-American Bacarri Rambo aren’t expected to be active for the opener against Buffalo on Sept. 1 because of offseason disciplinary issues.
Richt said Tuesday he couldn’t comment on the status of Rambo, who — according to his high school coach Alan Ingram — could miss the first four games of the season after testing positive for marijuana in the spring. Rambo has said he was unaware that brownies he ate for breakfast while on spring break with friends were laced with marijuana, Ingram said.
Williams, a strong safety who hits like a linebacker, was expected to be one of the team’s leaders even before Georgia ran into problems in the secondary. He knows he needs to lead, but he wants more for himself and this year’s team after a disappointing end to last year’s season when Georgia lost two in a row, including a triple overtime bowl game loss to Michigan State.
“I feel there’s still more stuff I can get better at and teaching the younger guys so they will be ready when they have the opportunity to play,’’ Williams said.
Still, he doesn’t believe there’s any added weight to that role.
“I don’t feel like there’s more on me,’’ he said. “I feel like it’s more of a team issue than just me. I’m just doing what I can to help the team. I don’t really know (who will be in the secondary when the season opens). No one really knows right now. Hopefully, we will have everybody back and show people what we can do as a team. It doesn’t affect me that much. Whoever ends up playing is just going to have to play. I try to be a leader either way.’’
Williams led the team with 72 tackles last year, forced a fumble, recovered a couple more fumbles and had four interceptions.
He wants more interceptions and more big plays this season, and he also wants to take the word impact and put an exclamation point it.
“One of my personal goals is to be a first-team All-American,’’ he said. “I know I haven’t made any All-American watchlists, so I want to go out and prove to people that I can be an All-American and have my picture hanging in the locker room as an All-American.’’
Williams said he doesn’t know exactly what the formula is to win that honor, joking that if he knew what to do he would go out and do it.
Then he paused and thought about it, before saying: “I guess you have go out and play and win. You have to be a game-changer, be that guy. Like they say, big-time players have to make big-time plays, so I guess that’s what I have to do. I feel like I am that guy. I feel like when I go on the field, I am the best at how I play.’’
Murray believes Williams is just that kind of player.
“I think he’s great,” the Bulldogs’ QB said. “He’s one of our best defensive players. Shawn is coming up, killing people, getting interceptions. He can do it all. I’m excited about him. He’s such a talented player. He’s definitely capable of getting All-American honors.’’
“I think that’s a very realistic goal for him,’’ Richt said, listing the reasons. “Because he’s 6-2, 220 pounds, and can run like a deer. And he’s physical and he’s got good ball skills. He knows the system. He wants to do great. He’s become quite a leader for us as well.’’
Richt added that he has seen Williams grow during the past year — just as Georgia’s defensive group grew on the field a year ago to turn things around in Athens and help put Georgia back into the national conversation. But Richt said he actually saw Williams, a senior, make the move as early as two years ago.
“I think he started turning the corner even before (last season),’’ Richt said. “I think he kind of — I use the term, ‘flipped the switch’ — where he got focused in on preparing and working, and not looking around at competition and not worrying about anything but taking care of his business. When he started doing that, he really started playing real good football. He has come a long way. There’s no question, he is that (leader) now.’’
Richt knows how valuable Williams is to this team, and wants a big season from his strong safety. He also has his eye on another Southwest Georgia product, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, a redshirt freshman from Mitchell County who could take off this season.
And when Scott-Wesley takes off, he’s tough to catch. He ran the fifth-fastest 200-meter time in the nation as a senior at Mitchell County and dominated the Class AA state track & field meet when he was there.
Richt had a bit of a smile when he talked about just how high Scott-Wesley’s ceiling could be with the Bulldogs.
“I do (believe he has a high ceiling), I really do,’’ Richt said. “I won’t tell you exactly how I feel about that but he really does. He’s tall enough. He’s strong enough. He’s fast enough. He’s smart enough. I think he is serious about wanting to be a very good football player. He’s a good person. I don’t know what kind of limitations you could put on him.’’
Scott-Wesley has come a long way since coming to Athens, and after making a few adjustments he appears to be making just the kind of strides the Bulldogs expected. Plus, he’s coming off a big spring.
“Justin had a great spring,’’ Richt said. “When he got to Georgia, like a lot kids, they want to lift weights and get strong and do those things. And he did. He probably got a little too big. But he has trimmed back a little bit.’’
The results can already be seen on the field.
“He really became a much smoother route runner, and he got his initial quickness and speed back,’’ Richt said. “And he caught the ball well (in spring). There’s no reason in my mind that he won’t be real productive for us this year. I’ve got high hopes for him.’’
Murray likes everything about Scott-Wesley, too.
“He had a great spring,’’ Murray said. “A lot of receivers start out a little stiff, just because they are counting their steps. A lot of our routes are based on yardage and they count their steps. You’re thinking, ‘I have a six-step route,’ and they’re thinking, ‘1,2,3, 4, 5, 6 steps.’
“And now (that they have adjusted), they can just naturally run the route.’’
Murray said that’s what has happened with Scott-Wesley.
“You could see his improvement this spring,’’ he said. “He’s just running. He’s not thinking about how many steps he has to take or how far he has to run before he makes his cut. He’s just playing ball now and having fun. He’s a fast kid so once he gets going it’s off to the races with him, so I’m excited about him — just knowing his improvement this spring and what he can do this summer to get ready for the season.
“I think he can (have an impact) just with his speed, and his size. He’s a big kid. He’s about 210, 215, and a very strong kid. Not only are you going to have a tough time catching him, but if you somehow do, it’s going to be tough to bring him down.’’