If just watching him during practice isn’t enough, the beads of sweat on Tyler Williams’ face are evidence enough of a hard-working day.
A redshirt sophomore on the Deacons’ defensive line, Williams is one of the happiest players, it seems, to be on the field for days like these. That’s in part because last year at this time, he wasn’t allowed to practice — as part of his recovery from surgery to remove a cyst on his head.
“I just think about it now, as like — if I get exhausted out here now, I just think about those times and just keep pushing,” Williams said Monday morning. “I remember I was real upset about that, being in my room while everybody was out here getting better.”
It’s no secret the Deacons need an influx of pass rushers on their defensive line. Last season Wake Forest ranked 10th in the ACC with 25 sacks, and team-leader Willie Yarbary (5½ sacks) was one of two senior defensive tackles, along with Zeek Rodney.
Through five days of Wake Forest’s fall camp — Monday was the first day in full pads — it’s clear that Williams, 6-1, 290-pounds, has emerged as a starting defensive tackle and will be counted on to step up his production.
“There’s times against good players, against (redshirt senior guard) Nate Gilliam, that he will flash and look really good. He’s very athletic,” Coach Dave Clawson said of Williams. “Now, Willie and Zeek were really good football players for us. I think they were really good (against the run) … I’m hoping Tyler will give us that and give us a little something more as a pass-rusher.”
Wake Forest gave up the most third down conversions (92) in the ACC last season. Clawson has pointed out over the past few days the Deacons were often efficient on first and second downs, but would crumble on third down — especially in third-and-long situations.
The best way to address that is to generate pressure on the quarterback with three- and four-player rushes, and now is the time to fit players like Williams into that plan.
“That was a problem last year. We got in third down and you know, if you blitz you open some things up coverage-wise, and if you don’t blitz and you can’t get there with four, then guys had all day,” Clawson said. “The amount of third-and-long conversions we gave up last year were backbreakers.”
Williams, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., started one game last year, and it was the last game he played in. He picked up the first sack of his career against Syracuse, but also fractured his left hand in three places against the Orange.
He’s got the scar to prove it — though he played through it in the game.
“And then it started shaking and I knew it was time to go, get out of there,” Williams said. “I never had broken a bone in my life.”
Wake Forest doesn’t lack options on the defensive line. Williams is in a rotation at defensive tackle with redshirt junior Sulaiman Kamara and sophomore Dion Bergan. Redshirt freshman Rondell Bothroyd is trying to become the fourth player in the tackle rotation.
Boogie Basham is the returning starter and burgeoning star at defensive end, with Mike Allen and Royce Francis behind him. And at the other defensive end position, Ja’Corey Johns has taken the majority of first-team reps over Manny Walker and Shamar McCollum.
“We’ve got some length and athleticism at the drop position (with Johns, Walker and McCollum), you’ve got returning with Boogie, and then a healthy Tyler Williams is going to be huge. There’s no doubt,” said assistant head coach for defense Dave Cohen, who also coaches the defensive linemen.
But the concern for Cohen is consistency, with the fresh example of Monday’s third-down situation showing that.
“We’re not nearly consistent enough right now. Even, we had a third down period today and I would’ve expected that we would have had a little more success than we had up front,” Cohen said. “I’m gonna hope (consistency improves), I think it’s there. I’ve gotta do a better job coaching and they’ve gotta play at a more-consistent level.”
However consistency comes to fruition, it’s clear Williams will be involved.