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Players We’re Hyped About: Safety Bennett Williams

The Cali native led the Illini in interceptions last season as a true freshman.

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

A 2-star cornerback from Northern California with just one Power 5 offer, Bennett Williams’ performance last season was nothing short of spectacular.

Looking at last season’s freshman class, there understandably was a lot of preseason hype surrounding some of the bigger-name recruits such as wide receivers Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green and defensive lineman Owen Carney. In 2017, the Illini started 15 true freshmen. Bennett Williams was hands-down the best of that group, and his impact on the Illinois defense was felt as close as Champaign and as far as Tampa, Florida. Bennett Williams finished the season fifth on the team in total tackles and first in interceptions.

Of those 15 true freshmen starters, five of them made the All-Freshmen Team: Tight end Louis Dorsey, defensive end Bobby Roundtree, cornerback Nate Hobbs, punter Blake Hayes and strong safety Williams.

Williams stood out in many games in 2017 — he was jump-off-the-screen good. His coming-out party was the game against the South Florida Bulls. He had 12 total tackles in that game.

Another game that stands out — and his best performance of the season — came in the game at Minnesota. Williams recorded 14 total tackles, deflected a pass and forced a fumble at TCF Bank Stadium in the Twin Cities. He was asked to be part of a defensive unit that stacked the box against a Minnesota team that ran the ball well but struggled throwing the ball down field. Williams more than held his own against Big Ten competition, not just in that game but all season long.

As he said himself after the Minnesota game in an interview with 247’s/Illini Inquirer’s Jeremy Werner: “[I] gotta work on getting bigger, that’s offseason stuff so I can continue to hang with those big guys inside.”

In the Northwestern game, Bennett Williams had a one-handed tip-to-himself interception near the goal-line:

Instincts can be tough to teach and train. Bennett Williams is a football player, a darn good one who knows where to be and when with a natural feel for the game. After a full offseason of conditioning and training in Champaign to get physically more imposing, he’ll continue to improve as his body evolves with his invaluable experience he earned as a freshman.

As the only Californian in the 2017 class, Williams represents a significant shift in the way Lovie Smith and specifically defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson recruits nationally. Recruiting the state of Illinois is a relatively small pond. It’s important for the Fighting Illini to have footholds in bigger ponds like they currently do in Florida, Texas, Missouri (St. Louis area) and now California. Nickerson is from Southern California, played his college football at UC-Berkley and coached high school football in Oakland for a number of years. Nickerson has deep connections with high school and college football on the west coast.

Also of California-recruiting note: Bennett Williams’ younger brother Evan is about to start his senior season of high school football. He currently holds an offer from Illinois — his only Power 5 offer to date. He’s being recruited by a bunch of schools including some from the Ivy League and the service academies, but he’s a strong lean to Illinois, according 247 Sports.

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