Three months ago, Bennett Williams was mostly an unknown to the casual Illinois fan.
He was a very average recruit based on rankings: 247 composite placed him as a three-star and the 1931th-best player in the country. His measurables, again, were nothing too impressive: Williams is listed at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds and ran a 4.84 40-yard dash, according to 247. His offer list included schools like Air Force, Cornell and Hawaii.
But reports from fall practices started coming in and one of the main surprises was that Williams was running with the first-team defense instead of incumbent starter Stanley Green. On 247, Williams was listed as a cornerback, so it was even more surprising to see that Lovie Smith was putting such faith in the youngster at safety.
Williams has been the starter in the defensive backfield once the season started and has wasting no time becoming one of the household names on the Illinois defense. The freshman was at it again Saturday with an interception and five tackles in a 24-10 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin and is our Illinois player of the game.
Williams began the year playing ‘center field’ as the deep free safety in the Illini’s Cover 1/Cover 3 scheme. In recent weeks, he’s played more and more in the box and shown physicality and instincts in run support as well. He picked up 14 tackles against Minnesota and has two interceptions, a forced fumble and two pass breakups in the past four games.
On his interception Saturday, Williams lines up along the line of scrimmage to get another body in the box pre-snap. When he reads pass, Williams buzzes out toward the sideline and gets proper depth down the field, then reads the quarterback’s eyes for the pick:
He has advanced ball skills for a freshman and has been one of the strong points for Illinois all season. The Illini are 27th in pass defense nationally, partly because it’s a strength of the defense and partly because the Illini haven’t been able to stop the run. Regardless, Williams and fellow freshman Tony Adams (who is sidelined with an injury) have shown the ability to be solid in pass coverage when the other team decides to throw.
More importantly, he is a much better fit alongside fellow safety Patrick Nelson than Green. Williams is able to thrive in pass coverage, an area that both Green and Nelson are less adapt at.
Williams had no other Big Ten offers coming into college, but he’s quickly established himself as a Big Ten-caliber player that should only improve with more time and development.