WINCHESTER — Tyler Williams emerged as Shenandoah University’s leading tackler last year, and in his first season as a full-time starter earned second-team All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference honors. The junior linebacker entered 2018 wanting to be more for the Hornets’ defense.
“I just wanted to improve on just being the center of the defense and being the one that inspires everyone to make plays,” he said earlier this week. “Just be the one that can make a TFL or catch a pick or something that gets our ball rolling and just gets the defense going.”
It’s a little ironic that Williams, SU’s starting linebacker, wants to be the epicenter of everything the Hornets do on defense. Known throughout the program as a soft-spoken person, Williams isn’t one to typically draw attention to himself.
Pace the Hornets’ sidelines during a game, head coach Scott Yoder said, and you’ll hear a lot of whooping and hollering from the mass of players clad in red, white and blue. One voice you’ll never hear is Williams’.
Williams instead personifies the familiar phrase that states actions speak louder than words. It’s quite an interesting trait for a mike linebacker, given that in that role Williams is the quarterback of the defense, in charge of making calls and getting his teammates lined up in the right positions. The responsibilities that come with the mike linebacker position have challenged Williams’ comfort zone.
“Yeah, it definitely has,” Williams said, “but I just try to lead really by example, and I think most guys understand that my actions are gonna be what’s leading everyone rather than my voice. We do have people that like to yell and get everyone hyped and whatnot with their voice, but I try to lead by just momentum and just making plays. That’s what I think really gets everyone going, is making plays.”
That is where Williams thrives. Despite not starting the first two games of 2017, he led the Hornets with 74 tackles and added 9.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Through four games this season he’s tied for the ODAC lead with 32 stops, including 24 solo tackles, and has three TFLs, two interceptions, and a pass breakup on defensive coordinator Brock McCullough’s unit.
“He’s the guy who’s gonna work hard in the weight room, and he’s very strong in the weight room and does a lot of things when nobody’s watching,” McCullough said. “… He’s very hard-nosed guy, a good tackler who works very hard every day at that. For us, he’s a guy you love to coach because there’s not a lot of negatives to ever say about him. He’s quiet; he’s polite, he’s soft-spoken. He’s not your typical mike linebacker in that regard, but I’d let him date my daughter because he’s that good of a young man.”
Williams is less friendly to opposing offenses. Listed at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, he is a throwback to a more physical brand of middle linebacker that McCullough said has started to fade with the rise of the spread offense.
McCullough called Williams a “plugger” who can fill holes against the run like a defensive lineman, but at the same time, the junior has the running ability to be effective in pass coverage, a trait that has become a trademark of today’s middle linebackers.
“If you run C-gap to C-gap, he’s gonna be involved in the tackle,” Yoder said. “It might not be a tackle for loss, but he’s very hard to block one-on-one. And there were a couple plays earlier in the season, just watching, where teams think they have a play and he splits the block and makes the stick. The other thing is too, it’s kind of a lost art, but … when he tackles somebody they normally don’t fall forward. You don’t see that as much this day with the spread offenses and more agile backs and stuff. I mean he hits somebody, they’re gonna stop moving.”
Williams’ nose for the ball can be a nuisance for opposing offenses, and it’s even become a source of good-natured frustration for some of his teammates. Hornets safety Nate Hill said the linebackers and defensive backs made a preseason bet as to which position group would have more tackles at season’s end, with the losers required to do 50 up-downs each. Williams has SU’s linebackers in the lead with the season approaching its midway point.
“Seeing him get the tackles, I’m like ‘come on, y’all, come on, I’m not trying to more up-downs, let’s get to it!’” Hill said with a laugh. “And I’m also friends with him off the field, so just having him there just made me a better player because I see him doing what he’s supposed to do. And he’s strong too, so I’m like ‘alright, I’ve gotta get a little bit stronger.’ Having him there has been great.”
It took some time for Williams, a Manassas Park native, to get his shot at regular playing time for the Hornets. He didn’t see much significant action as a freshman in 2016, recording 13 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in nine games played while starting the final game of that season.
Five days before preseason camp in August 2017, Williams was in a personal watercraft accident and suffered a concussion and lacerations to his face and hip that required stitches. The injury set him back in camp, though he played in all 10 games in 2017.
“It was so hard coming to camp not being able to do anything because I hadn’t started my freshman year — well, I started the last game, but I wasn’t a regular starter, and then the role was mine coming into the next season,” Williams said. “For me to get injured right before camp, it was just really hard.”
By the third game of 2017, Williams, who had been in a rotation with fellow linebacker Dylan Miller, was Shenandoah’s everyday starter at mike linebacker after showing off his relentless pursuit of the ball and high productivity.
“He kind of made me play him with his film and everything like that,” McCullough said. “And ever since then, he’s pretty much the unquestioned leader of our linebacker group by his style of play.”
McCullough added that Williams is in much better shape than he was a season ago, allowing him to play as an every-down linebacker. Williams also is a smarter player.
He’s got two interceptions in four games this season after snagging one in his first two years at SU. Williams’ first pick of 2018 came in Week 2 against North Carolina Wesleyan, which set up a short touchdown drive in the Hornets’ 59-21 win.
He tallied his second interception against Ferrum last week when he plucked a pass out of the air at the Shenandoah 6-yard line in the closing seconds of the first half as teammate Chris Grady brought blind-side pressure on Panthers QB Zack Clifford.
“As I get more experience, I have a better understanding how pass concepts work and whatnot,” Williams said. “Everyone will tell me that that second one was a coincidence because (Clifford) got hit as he was throwing the ball, but I tend to find myself in better situations more often now that I have more experience.”
Shenandoah’s defense, which gives up a lot of yards and relies heavily on timely plays in key situations, needs every bit of Williams’ production, and the quiet leadership that comes along with it.
“Obviously we’re a work in progress on defense,” McCullough said, “and Tyler’s our most consistent guy at the linebacker position.”