Early County’s Shawn Williams (36) took a calculated risk earlier this week when he called out his defense, hoping it would light a fire under No. 12 UGA as it heads into a showdown with No. 3 Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville. By the same token, the comments could backfire and divide the team.
BY SETH EMERSON
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD
WHO: No. 12 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) vs. No. 3 Florida (7-0, 6-0 SEC).
WHAT: UGA’s 6th SEC game.
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Jacksonville, Fla.
RADIO: Albany— 1450 AM or 103.5 FM; Americus — 98.7 FM or 1390 AM; Donalsonville — 106.3 FM; Moultrie 93.9 FM or 1300 AM.
LINE: Gators by 6 1/2 points.
ATHENS — Every team has a Shawn Williams, that one player always speaking his mind, often too blunt and often biting --- but always honest.
That’s why Jarvis Jones’ first reaction, when he heard what Williams said Monday night, was just to laugh.
“Everyone knows Shawn is a very passionate guy,” Jones said. “Guys understand where he came from and definitely respect him.”
It’s very possible that Williams’ scathing comments Monday, ripping into the play of his defense and calling it “soft,” will just end up being a footnote, a Hail Mary that doesn’t work as Georgia tries to beat No. 3 Florida.
But if the 12th-ranked Bulldogs pull off the upset on Saturday, with the defense finally playing the way it did last year, credit will go to Williams for lighting a fire under his teammates.
The fact that a football player was so outspoken, in this era of coach-speak, was surprising. If it was going to happen at Georgia, however, no one should be surprised it was Williams. The Early County native has said often that his father instilled in him the idea that he should always speak his mind, even if it ruffles feathers or sounds bombastic.
“If you ask me, I tell you what’s on my mind,” Williams said. “People, they need to hear it.”
In fact, at one point during his Monday rant, Williams stopped to look to the other side of the room to see teammate Malcolm Mitchell. Craning his neck, Williams yelled out: “Hey Malcolm! Tell them what’s on your mind! Tell them, man.”
Mitchell craned his neck back around at Williams and just smiled. Williams then went on with his riff, which consisted of saying defenders were playing too soft or seemed distracted, and he even pointed out players who needed to play more.
It was clear Monday night that Williams wanted to get his feelings off his chest. He was not prodded by the media. In fact, the first question was a fairly innocuous one about stopping Florida’s run game. This is how Williams responded:
“You ask me what we gotta do? I don’t care who they have running the ball, I just think we gotta stop playing soft,” he said.
And he was off.
The next morning, head coach Mark Richt and Williams met, and Richt said Williams told his coach he felt bad about some of it. Richt later said it may not have been good for Williams to air his grievances in public.
But that’s as far as Richt or defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have gone in chastising Williams. It’s clear the coaches are hoping some good comes from the comments.
“I think it’s better when it comes from the players and not the coaches,” Richt said Wednesday. “Do I think it was a catalyst to help jolt our guys? I think so. Or at least we’ll see. …
“We do have a very good, unified group, even though sometimes in the family somebody might say something you don’t like, might hurt your feelings. But in the end it was done with the intention of making things better, and that’s what I think everybody’s focusing on right now.”
It may have had to be Williams to say it. He has credibility, being a senior and longtime starter, and one of the few defensive stars to play every game this season thanks to no suspension or injuries. He leads the team in tackles this year, and ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has said Williams could be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The only other player with more credibility would have been Jones, the All-American, but that’s just not his nature.
“I’m more of a quiet guy, I’m not that vocal,” Jones said when asked what he thought about Williams’ comments. “I probably would have called my defense together and talked about it. But sometimes you’ve gotta look at different situations and get people’s attention. Shawn was coming from the heart with it, and that definitely got our attention. We’ve gotta look past the negativity of it and where other people thought it went. But we understand where Shawn was coming from.”
Williams plays safety with the same fire. Sometimes, the fire goes too far.
It was his antics last year at Vanderbilt that led to the James Franklin-Todd Grantham confrontation. Williams would be suspended for the first half of Georgia’s next game for a hit in that Vanderbilt game.
Last Saturday at Kentucky, Williams was one of three Georgia players to get a 15-yard penalty, his for a facemask.
Even offensive players have noticed that much of the defensive emotion comes from Williams.
“He’s a leader, and he came out and said what was on his mind,” senior receiver Marlon Brown said. “If some guy’s feelings got hurt by that, you shouldn’t be playing football. We’re all grown men here.”
But this wasn’t the first time Williams had said it. He’s fiery everywhere else, too.
“I remember him all throughout the (Kentucky) game, saying, ‘We’re playing too soft, we’ve gotta shut these boys down.’ He was voicing that a little bit last Saturday,” freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “And Sunday morning on the way back, he was voicing it. This week we’re definitely gonna have to be a hell of a lot more physical.”
“It wasn’t like he was throwing ... coaches, or anything like that, under the bus. Personally, a lot of guys feel like it was a challenge to go out there and re-focus ourselves and get back on the right track, and play the defense we’ve been playing, and that’s smash-mouth football.”
Williams’ teammate in the secondary, ex-Seminole County star Bacarri Rambo — another Southwest Georgia product, like Williams — agreed with Jenkins’ assessment.
“I see Shawn as a leader. Shawn is a great guy,” Rambo said. “He brings so much energy to the defense, so whatever he says, I’m gonna agree with him and back him up, because I know he only brings energy and positive influence to the defense.”
And while some of Williams’ teammates have since fired back, saying he challenged their manhood and they were eager to prove him wrong Saturday against Florida, for the most part the reaction has been one-sided in support of Williams.
“Shawn is a spark to the team,” Brown said. “So when guys hear teammates saying something about them, it goes a lot more than a fan saying something about them.”
Added cornerback Sanders Commings: “I don’t think he was trying to call anybody out, take shots at anybody. He just wanted us to play better, to play harder.”
For more than a month earlier this season, Williams didn’t speak to the media. It’s still not clear whether that was his decision or the coaches’. In any case, the boycott ended the week before the Kentucky game.
Then came his unprovoked rant Monday night. As he was wrapping up, a media member, aware of the firestorm about to ensue, asked Williams if his media visits were about to be curtailed again. Williams sounded surprised.
“Yeah, I’ll be back,” he said. “Unless they don’t let me. I’ll be back.”