TUSCALOOSA — It’s hard to deny the novelty of a foreign-born football player succeeding at Alabama. For a year, Australian defensive linemen Jesse Williams fielded countless questions on the topic.
It’s time to move on now. He’s angling for a new calling card.
The rising senior is making moves this spring in the race to replace Josh Chapman as the nose guard anchoring the Crimson Tide defensive line. After one season at end, the former top junior college recruit is working with the first team at the new position.
That doesn’t mean mimicking everything his predecessor did.
“We have two different body types,” said Williams, listed at 6-4, 319 pounds. “I’m just going to try to do it the best I can to fit my body. Run around and fit blocks and do the best I can. I can’t really compare myself to Josh. We’re too different kind of players.”
Chapman, a two-year starter, was 6-1, 310 pounds according to last season’s roster. He was known for his brute strength and an ability to occupy two blockers to spring linebackers.
Through two weeks of spring practices, Williams was still adjusting to the “close quarters” of being the middle lineman in the three-down packages.
It’s about feeling his way through the transition.
“I try to rush as much as I can from nose as I did from out,” said Williams who had shared a sack among his 24 tackles last season. “I’m still trying to work out the kinks at a different position, but as I get more comfortable playing nose full time I’ll try to get more of a pass rush.”
Starting Alabama nose guards accounted for just three total sacks in the last four seasons. Chapman had 2.5 in the last two while Terrence Cody (6-5, 365 pounds) split one in 2008.
But that isn’t the top priority for the nose in Alabama’s defense. Taking up space and offensive linemen is a stated goal.
In terms of learning the new spot, coach Nick Saban said the various formations and shifts gave Williams experience in territory close to the middle of the line.
“We play 2-gap so you’re only this far from the guy you’re going to butt in the throat,” Saban said holding two fingers inches apart. “The only difference is the guy’s got a ball in his hand if you’re playing nose.”
The job isn’t locked up for Williams, though.
Returning reserves Brandon Ivory and Wilson Love are also getting a look and there’s a long way to go before the Sept. 1 opener with Michigan.
Saban is happy that date is still months in the future for the defensive line.
“We’re not disappointed with the progress they’re making but they’re probably not quite ready from a consistency standpoint which we’ll continue to work on,” he said.
Practice time facing an offensive line with four returning starters and a former high school All-American can accelerate that process. Williams joked about Barrett Jones following him on the offensive line since the senior shifted from left tackle to center this spring.
“Yeah, besides watching “The Longest Yard,” I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest offensive line I’ve seen,” Williams said. “They are a great bunch of guys. … They didn’t lose too many, so they are pretty strong up front.”
There’s no lack of size in the future for Alabama’s nose guards. Williams will graduate after this season, so he’s already grooming a potential successor he calls “ginormous.” True freshman Alphonse Taylor weighed a Cody-like 360 pounds when he enrolled in January and is now listed at 340 on the spring roster.
Taylor’s time will come. Now, though, it’s about Williams.
His second and final season at Alabama includes less anxiety about the game plan. He’s no longer the Australian on the football team.
Williams can instead focus on learning a new position with the benefit of experience.
“I don’t feel like I’m always late, or that I’m nervous that I’m missing something,” he said. “It’s a little bit easier coming through the second time, having a little bit of knowledge of what is coming.”