By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- Michael Williams journey to Tennessee's defensive backfield traveled along a winding path, one that has led the redshirt sophomore to a surprising spot at the top of the depth chart
Williams followed the lead of older brother and NFL veteran Madieu Williams by signing with the University of Maryland out of high school to play football. But his desire to run track collegiately led to a release from UM and a move to UT on a track scholarship.
After two successful track seasons, Williams felt the itch to return to the football field and joined the squad for the 2013 season, becoming another in the long list of two-sport student-athletes at Tennessee.
His transition back to the gridiron was not easy, seeing no game action while working at defensive back in his first season. The second go-around has been a different story. And it is only a part of his story.
"My time at Tennessee has been a great experience," Williams said. "I'm blessed to have this opportunity. I have a grit, just relentless. I'm a fast guy, sometimes I play too fast, I'm just out there trying to get better and trying to make Tennessee better."
The fact that he has excelled on the field to become one of the top players in the rotation at cornerback should come as no surprise considering his pedigree. Madieu Williams was a second round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2004 and played nine seasons in the NFL with the Bengals, Vikings, 49ers and Redskins. What is a surprise is how quickly he has accomplished it as a two-sport athlete, particularly when he was pulling double-duty in the spring, the time young players often find their biggest gains.
"It's not easy balancing track and football, especially in the spring with spring football and a full track season," said Williams. "You have to be very focused and have determination. You can't let yourself get beat up, you have to take the right precautions, get treatment and focus on school."
The focus and drive have impressed his head coach.
"Well, resiliency," Butch Jones said when asked how Williams has been able to make such an impact. "He's an individual who wasn't around much in the spring, and he's a dual-sport athlete, which we take tremendous pride in here in track and football, working hand and hand together. We know the great tradition that we have here with that. But he has come in and worked exceptionally hard, each and every day. He's been very resilient."
His resiliency is nothing new. Williams lost his mother when he was 12 and dedicates every moment on the football field to her memory, even though she would have preferred that he limit his talents to the track.
"I remember my mom never wanted me to play football," Williams said. "She always wanted me to run track. She did hurdles, so that's the reason I did hurdles. Now I'm playing football, dedicating it to her. Everything I do is for my mom."
Abigail Williams, a nurse, came to this country from Sierra Leone with Madieu when the elder brother was nine. Her work ethic raising her sons inspired both to do great things with their talent. At the height of his NFL career, Madieu made a leadership gift to establish the Madieu Williams Center for Global Health Initiatives at Maryland in 2009 and was named the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year for the 2010 season for his work with children in his home state.
For Michael, the inspiration has led to the on-field attitude of just getting better every day.
"Mike is a guy that comes to work every day, he's kind of a lunch pail guy," defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said. "This is very important to him. He plays with high energy and is very consistent when it comes to effort and doing it our way, the Tennessee way. He believes in that 'One' philosophy, one rep at a time, and that's why he's playing."
His goals are to give back, much the same way his brother has. A biology major, Williams wants to work in forensics when his football career is over. The advice his older brother passed on comes with both the experience of an NFL veteran and the wisdom of a brother.
"He tells me to stay focused, have that driven goal and keep setting goals for yourself every year," the younger Williams said. "He told me to keep doing everything for my mom, knowing she's looking down on me."