0

Chasing their dreams

On Thursday night in New York City’s Radio Music Hall, two former area high school football stars — Early County’s Shawn Williams, left, and Seminole County’s Bacarri Rambo, hope to be the latest from Southwest Georgia to find a home on an NFL roster. The two safeties starred at Georgia and led the Bulldogs’ defense the last three seasons and are projected to be taken anywhere from as high as the second or third round to as late as the fourth round. (Richard Hamm/Athens Banner-Herald)

On Thursday night in New York City’s Radio Music Hall, two former area high school football stars — Early County’s Shawn Williams, left, and Seminole County’s Bacarri Rambo, hope to be the latest from Southwest Georgia to find a home on an NFL roster. The two safeties starred at Georgia and led the Bulldogs’ defense the last three seasons and are projected to be taken anywhere from as high as the second or third round to as late as the fourth round. (Richard Hamm/Athens Banner-Herald)

Looking Ahead

WHO: Former Southwest Georgia, UGA football stars Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams.

WHAT: 2013 NFL Draft.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday.

WHERE: New York City.

TV: ESPN

By Seth Emerson

SPECIAL TO THE HERALD

ATHENS ­­— Shawn Williams always credited his father with his honest streak.

Confidence isn’t a bad thing if you can back it up, Williams recalled his father saying. And during the past few years, Williams has put his own twist on that.

First, he backed it up. Then, at a key moment in his final year at Georgia, Williams unleashed his mouth on his teammates with explosive — but positive — results. That, along with his play on the field, cemented his legacy in Georgia football.

“He’s one of my favorite players of all time, I can assure you of that,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said.

It’s a remarkable story for a kid from the tiny Southwest Georgia town of Damascus, and from an equally small high school at Early County. The story continues this week as Williams is expected to be picked in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft.

The expectations are the same for another former Southwest Georgia native, Bacarri Rambo, who once starred at Seminole County before coming to Athens and playing alongside Williams the past four years. The two safeties are different in personality and in style of play, but their draft position could be pretty similar.

Earlier this week the NFL Network projected Rambo to be a third-round pick, while Williams is projected to be taken in the fourth round.

Of the two former Southwest Georgia stars, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. is higher on Williams.

“I think Shawn Williams is a very solid, reliable safety,” Kiper said. “He’s tested well, he played well, had a good Senior Bowl week. I think he’s solidly in that late second-round/early third-round discussion.”

Kiper, meanwhile, isn’t quite as high on Rambo, citing his need to improve in at least one key area.

“Bacarri Rambo made a lot of big plays, a bit inconsistent tackler at times, I think he’s a third or fourth-round pick,” Kiper said.

Either way, it’s a remarkable climb from near-obscurity for the duo, who were not the most highly recruited members of their respective classes at Georgia.

Rambo was a three-star prospect coming out of Seminole County, a GHSA Class A school. He was notable for his quarterback skills, a bit more of a risk as a defensive player, which is partly why he was redshirted in 2008.

But once he started playing his skills became evident. He started every game he played the past three years at Georgia — although he infamously was twice suspended, for what Rambo’s former head coach at Seminole, Alan Ingram, said were drug violations.

It’s unclear whether the off-field issues will affect the draft status of Rambo, who was a First-Team All-American after his junior year.

“Generally speaking it’s a case‑by‑case study. It really is,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “You look at what are the issues. If they’re, let’s say hypothetically, if they’re drug related, is it a dependency thing or something that you’re not concerned about long‑term. If there are some character things, if there are arrests, what were they? You have to look at them all individually.”

During UGA’s Pro Day recently, Rambo met with Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

“It was an honor just to be around him. Just seeing him on TV, just being around him, knowing he might be my coach, it’s just an honor, and a great privilege to be in the same room as those guys,” he said.

Rambo, who was second on the team last season in interceptions to tie the all-time UGA career mark with 16, very nearly entered the draft after his junior season after leading the SEC in interceptions. But he didn’t like his draft grade of the third round or worse. After UGA’s Pro Day last month, Rambo was asked if he felt more prepared this year.

“The difference with last year and this year (is) I understand it a lot more,” he said. “I’ve got my priorities in order since last year. Everything will work out the best for me.”

Williams didn’t speak with the media after Pro Day. It was part of an off-and-on-again media boycott over the past year, which was off the week of the Florida game. That was when Williams ripped into his defensive teammates for “playing soft” — a rant that was surprising in its bluntness but ended up being well-received.

McGarity credited it with turning around Georgia’s season.

“I have so much respect for that young man. Because, you know what? He was never on the screen off the field,” McGarity said. “He went to class. He was never on the A.D.’s screen as far as, ‘Here’s someone you need to look at (for off-field problems).’ And he always played hard. Very soft-spoken, but he was the kind of kid that you have a lot of respect for, and I hope he does great things.”

Williams has had to use his hustle and wits to impress coaches since he arrived on campus.

Williams laughed when asked in 2011 how many stars were by his name while he was being recruited.

“Somewhere around a two or three,” he said. “Who knows? I don’t care.”

As a freshman he played well enough to avoid a redshirt and was named one of the team’s top newcomers for his special teams play. Then he appeared in every game last year, starting three at safety, and finished with 34 tackles.

Thomas Brown, one of the team’s assistant strength coaches, recently told Williams he reminded him of former Georgia star safety Thomas Davis, who was shifted to outside linebacker when he went to the NFL.

Davis was another product of Southwest Georgia from Randolph-Clay, which is located a few counties over from where Williams’ family lives in Damascus. They had to move last summer after the family home burned down for unknown reasons. Williams wasn’t home when it happened, and while he came back at first to help out and lend support, he was told to return to work in Athens.

UGA, after checking to make sure it was NCAA compliant, set up a fund that helped the family get back to normal.

“My family is tough, so we always find a way to get through things,” Williams said.

On the field, Williams was one of the most reliable players on a star-studded defense. He led the team in tackles as a junior and was second on the team as a senior. He peppered in some hard hits, and his emotional play was often a spark.

Brandon Boykin, a former teammate entering his second year with the Philadelphia Eagles, once told a story of Williams literally inserting himself into the game. Georgia had just fallen behind against South Carolina and was preparing to receive a kickoff. That’s when Williams, who was not on the special teams unit, grabbed a freshman.

“Shawn was like, ‘Get out I’m going in,’ ” Boykin recalled.

Williams proceeded to give the key block that sprung Boykin for a long return.

“I see Shawn as a leader. Shawn is a great guy,” Rambo said. “I know he only brings energy and positive influence to the defense.”

Williams just sees it as being himself — and he hopes NFL teams embrace that quality.

“If you ask me, I tell you what’s on my mind,” Williams said last season, prior to the Florida game. “People, they need to hear it.”