A lot of football players at the high school level can dominate the opposition based purely on their superior athletic skills. As the levels of competition increase, more factors come into play. In order to be successful at a Division I program like the Texas Longhorns, a player must not only have tremendous talent, he must also have a drive and a work ethic that's going to provide separation from his peers. And perhaps most importantly, a player must handle his business away from the field by maintaining his grades and acting in a mature manner in the community.
Some guys have it, some guys don't. It's a story as old as college football itself - the star prep athlete that enters a program with huge expectations, only to flame out because he didn't have the drive and desire to put in the extra effort. Top talents disappear from the game all the time because they get passed by other athletes who work harder or play smarter.
In a day and age of college football where every program in America is recruiting top-flight raw athletes, it's imperative for players to utilize the facilities and highly scientific training programs that are at their disposal in order to maximize their talents. If you don't, somebody else will, and you'll get left behind.
In the case of cornerback Aaron Williams, one of the top players in the Longhorn program, there are no concerns about drive or desire. Those that have known Williams going back to his days at Round Rock McNeil will tell you they never had a doubt he'd blossom into one of the top defensive backs in all of college football, and it's surprising to none of Williams' high school coaches that the 6-1, 192-pounder was able to make such an immediate impact on the Longhorn secondary.
Coming off the bench as a true freshman, Williams always seemed to be in the right spot for the Texas defense and he turned in a handful of big plays in limited action. Williams recorded his first career interception against Arkansas, returning it 81 yards for a touchdown. He blocked four punts that year, tying the UT single-season record. Williams' reps as a freshman were limited with more experienced guys like Ryan Palmer, Deon Beasley, Chykie Brown and Curtis Brown picking up most of the snaps, but it was clear to anyone that watched him that Williams has as much talent as any DB on the Texas roster.
In fact, that talent was apparent going back to Williams' days at McNeil.
"You could see it pretty much right away. Aaron has a winning ability that most people don't have," said Calvin Guillory, who coached defensive backs at McNeil when Williams was a Maverick (Guillory now coaches running backs). "He has a no losing attitude. He's going to find a way to win.
"I had him in track as well. It didn't matter what we put him in, he was going to find a way to win. He didn't settle for anything but winning. Right away I saw in him that fortitude to win. When he was at a point of getting beat, and there were people that did beat him, he would always try to find a way to get better so he could beat them when he'd face them again."
Former McNeil defensive coordinator Jack Estes, who now coaches linebackers in the program, said Williams' natural physical skills were easy to spot, and he's the type of athlete that's ranks with any player that's come through the McNeil program.
"What he does, and I'm not taking anything away from work ethic because he's an incredible worker, but guys his size, 6-1, 190, most people don't have the kind of feet that he has," said Estes. "Aaron by far has the best reaction, the best feet, the best hips of anyone I've ever seen. He's just incredible."
As a sophomore for Texas in 2009, Williams slid into a starting role for the Longhorns and he continued to excel. His turned in three interceptions, including an athletic, memorable game-changer on the sidelines against Oklahoma which helped seal the win for Texas. Up 16-13 in the fourth quarter, Williams skied for an interception on the sideline on what appeared to be an attempted throwaway by OU quarterback Landry Jones.
Throughout his Longhorn career, Williams has seemed to always find himself in the right place at the right time. He comes from a football family and he's blessed with a natural feel for the game, but Williams' on-field success also stems from intense preparation.
"If he was watching a game on TV - and it didn't matter what sport because football is not only sport Aaron is incredible at - but if he was watching a game on TV or going to a game, he wasn't looking at the cheerleaders, he wasn't listening to band or listening to the announcer," Estes said. "He was watching specific things about the game. He gets that from his dad.
"As far as his sports knowledge, his football knowledge, there are very few that studied the game like he did when he was young all the way through. He has an unbelievable natural ability but his work ethic and his knowledge of the game put him way above anyone I've coached in 25 years."
VICTIM OF HIS OWN SUCCESS
When Williams does eventually enter the NFL draft - he still has two years of eligibility at Texas remaining, though people have speculated he could come out next year, after his junior season. Williams has never commented on the possibility - he'll likely be a first-round pick and he should challenge to be the first cornerback selected.
Despite the enormous amount of talent that runs through his veins, Williams was completely shut-out on the 2009 All-Big 12 Football Team as voted by the league coaches. No first-team selection, no second-team, not even honorable mention. He did join 15 other corners in picking up honorable mention honors from the Associated Press.
So how does such an enormous talent earn such little post-season recognition? In a nutshell, Williams is too talented to be in the running.
As was the case in high school, teams rarely test Williams in pass coverage because his receiver is usually completely covered up. Because his pass defense is so stellar, he gets few attempts to record interceptions or pass break-ups, and unfortunately for Williams, those that cast their votes for all-league honors often-times base their decisions only on box scores. Last week, Williams was named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list, but it'll take a minor miracle - or some poor game-planning from opposing coaches - for Williams to bring home the hardware.
"I've had this conversation with his dad. He just has to be prepared for that. If they throw at Aaron Williams, they're stupid. Deion Sanders had horrible stats because nobody threw against him," said Estes. "He's not going to have good stats. He's already on the watch list for several awards but he's not going to have the stats to win them. It's not that he's not good enough, but people aren't going to throw at him."
AN EARLY GLIMPSE
At McNeil, Williams was a Parade All-American, a U.S. Army Bowl participant, a Rivals100 member and the state's top-ranked player on the Lone Star Recruiting Top 100.
Williams' coaches described him as a talented kid early in his high school career, but it wasn't until his junior season at McNeil before Williams really began to take off. His body began to change and in his first year on varsity, college coaches began to take notice.
Williams' coming-out party, ironically, came in a game against a player who he now lines up against in practice as a Longhorn. With McNeil facing Round Rock High School, the Maverick coaching staff designed a game plan that would allow its defense to constantly bracket star Round Rock receiver James Kirkendoll, now a senior at Texas. But the plan faltered when one of the McNeil DBs struggled to understand the concept. Mid-game, the coaches made the decision to simply lock up Williams on Kirkendoll in passing downs, and Williams stepped up his game to a new level.
"At that point in time, we knew he was good, but we didn't know he was that good. In high school, you didn't single cover Kirkendoll," Estes said. "We put Aaron in there early in the second quarter and matched him up on him man to man. Kirkendoll didn't catch another pass, As a matter of fact, he didn't get open again. There were some things when they tried to throw the ball to him, some of the things Aaron did, you just can't do that."
Following that game, the offers began to pour in.
"Any time a recruiter came through, I'd put on about two minutes of tape on Aaron covering Kirkendoll," Estes said. "The coaches would step out, make a call and come right back in and make an offer.
"So his junior year, about halfway through it, I knew he was really, really special. I always knew he was good but that's when I knew he was better than most."
A MENTOR AT McNEIL
Williams has given the coaches, teachers and school administrators at his alma matter plenty of which to be proud, but it's been his loyalty to the school and the examples he's set for the younger student athletes that has most stood out.
He's a regular visitor at the school, he helps with the football team's summer 7-on-7 program, and it's the impression he leaves on the current student athletes that makes his coaches most appreciative.
"Without question, the thing that I am the very most proud of - he's an incredible football player and I can't' see how he would not be a first-round draft pick - but the way that he has been an example. He comes back to McNeil high school all the time. There's not a month that goes by when he doesn't come back, sometimes two or three times at minimum," Estes said. "When they're not in spring ball or playing the fall, Aaron is setting unbelievable examples for the kids we have in our program. I've been lucky enough that I've coached a lot of Division I players and a few that have played in the NFL, none of them have ever come close to doing what Aaron does for our school. That's what I'm the most proud of, the example that he has set for his younger brothers, his sister, and all the kids at McNeil. I have kids at McNeil and everybody looks up to Aaron and it's because of the way he handles himself."
At McNeil, Williams was a Division I caliber quarterback, receiver and baseball player, in addition to his obvious talents as a cornerback. He was a fan favorite as a high school student athlete, but with help from his family, Williams has always remained grounded.
As a senior, Williams would sometimes be asked for autographs from fans whether McNeil was playing at home or on the road, but it never cracked Williams' humility.
In the locker room, Williams would use his words to motivate his teammates, but it was the actions he displayed that prompted others to follow his lead.
"The thing about Aaron, he's a vocal leader. There are a lot of kids that try to be vocal in the locker room setting or away from the field. He was so much of leader by example," Estes said "We've had kids that come through that want to be leader, they think they're a leader because they're vocal. But then if they don't put forth great effort or don't do the little things right, nobody's going to follow. Aaron was such a great example with his work ethic, with the way he represented our school, his family, around campus and outside of school.
"You put that together and you just don't have that very often any more, a kid that was never a problem in the classroom, never a problem in the halls, has great work ethic and at the same time has that kind of ability. He has such a good head on his shoulders. He's not perfect, but I just don't what anyone could find to knock him. I can't say enough good things about him. He's truly an incredible young man."
Longhorn fans have been saying the same thing ever since Williams stepped on campus, and 2010 should be the year the rest of the country officially catches on.