“Soft-spoken grown man.”
That’s how defensive backs coach Travis Fisher described senior safety Deontai Williams during his Zoom call with the media on Tuesday.
Williams’ 24th birthday is on Sunday. Though he’s only played 13 games in a Husker jersey, the safety from Jacksonville, Florida, has been through a lot in his college career.
Williams enrolled at Jones County Community College in 2016 and played in one game as a freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. He bounced back as a redshirt freshman, totaling 26 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He chose the Huskers over offers from Florida, Ole Miss and Central Florida.
Williams earned a role right away in Lincoln, flashing his playmaking ability in a reserve role. He notched 23 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, two pass breakups, one tackle for loss and one fumble recovery.
Williams started in the season-opener in 2019 and the coaches were very high on his potential. However, for the second time in his career, Williams suffered a season-ending injury in game one. He had to watch from the sidelines as the Huskers limped through a 5-7 season. Williams isn’t one to spend a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.
“The process has been great,” Williams said about his recovery. “Ever since I got hurt I’ve been on the move to get better, learn more about the playbook, try to be that captain that the defense needs, talk to teammates and all that, making our relationship better and go up from here.”
Williams received his degree from Nebraska in child, youth and family studies in December of 2019. With all the uncertainty surrounding Big Ten football heading into the season (culminating in its postponement), Williams could have looked elsewhere and played right away as a graduate transfer.
“I looked at it this way: just keep my head down and stay focused no matter what,” Williams said. “You never know what’s going to go down. I don’t have control over any of that, so I just tried to stay grinding on the field, stay in the lab and get stronger.”
Despite all the uncertainty, that’s the same mindset Williams has kept throughout the extended offseason: stay focused.
“Right now that the season’s back on, I’m fired up,” Williams said. “I’m ready to hit, I’m ready to fly around, show what I’ve got. I still have a lot to prove, to the defense, to the coaches and anything else if I want to go to the next level, scouts and all. This year has just been to improve, to show what I’ve got.”
In 24 career games between the junior college and Division I levels, Williams has racked up 55 tackles (one for loss), four interceptions, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two pass breakups. Williams is a natural playmaker and a big hitter with a nose for the ball. Williams may not have a big voice, but his words still carry plenty of weight in the defensive backs room.
“Soft-spoken grown man,” Fisher repeated. “He’s not going to be moved off emotions. He’s going to let his opportunities present themselves and he’s going to go out and play football. I love the kid, man. He’s great in the room, he has the culture, he brings the younger guys along, he holds the older guys accountable, he holds himself accountable. It’s a pleasure to coach him.”
Despite his knack for making plays, Williams doesn’t have all that much film to show to professional scouts. He’s technically a senior this season, but the NCAA has determined that the 2020 season won’t count towards a student-athlete’s eligibility clock, no matter how much he or she plays. Williams could opt to return for 2021, and since he’s lost two seasons to injury he’d even have a strong case to receive a sixth year of eligibility if he wanted it.
However, once again, Williams is about to turn 24 and he already has his degree in hand. It would be hard to blame him if he felt ready for the next stage of his life. A big 2020 season could mean that next stage involves the NFL. For now, Williams is focused on the task at hand.
“I’m not really thinking about anything,” Williams said. “I’m just taking it week by week, day by day and letting God handle the rest. I really don’t think about what my plans are. When you try to make a plan, it really doesn’t work out how you wanted it to be.”
Williams has experienced plans going awry all too often throughout his career, but he’s got a chance to make a big impression this season. His voice may be soft, but that’s just fine for him and the Huskers; so long as he’s healthy, he’ll let his play do the talking.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.