TEMPE, Ariz. — Brandon Williams was a running back in high school as well as in his first two seasons at Texas A&M.
While at College Station, he ran for 651 yards and four touchdowns on 132 carries while also catching 15 passes for 85 yards and one score.
Numbers like that would not necessarily warrant a team spending a third-round pick on a player, and indeed, the Arizona Cardinals did not spend the 92nd overall selection on him because of what he did out of the backfield.
No, the Cardinals chose Williams because he’s a cornerback, albeit a fairly inexperienced one with one season playing the position.
“Really, really excited about our corner, Brandon Williams, from Texas A&M,” GM Steve Keim said. “Not only his size, his length, his athleticism — (he) really has a unique story.”
Keim pointed to how Williams converted from running back to cornerback last June and very quickly became a starter who has great passion and love for football.
“A guy who made that transition so late, was not only a team captain,” the GM continued, “but we talked to (A&M defensive coordinator) John Chavis, (A&M head coach) Kevin Sumlin, all the people on the campus, and there was no question that he was the team leader, a guy who was a vocal catalyst for the Texas A&M team this year.”
The Cardinals certainly have a knack for taking players with leadership qualities. Including Williams, 18 of 23 players the Cardinals have drafted since 2013 served as a team captain in college.
But as high as the Cardinals are on Williams’ character, they are equally as pumped about his potential.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, Williams ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which tied him for the sixth-fastest time of anyone who participated. He posted a high jump of 30.5 inches and a broad jump of 118 inches, and showed well in the agility drills, too.
Though raw, he has all the tools to excel as a cornerback, so long as he learns how to play the position.
The switch, Williams said, was made at the behest of Chavis, who incidentally was the defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach at LSU when current Cardinals Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Kevin Minter attended the school.
“It was super hard,” Williams said of the move to cornerback. “The technique, handling the technique or what not of it. It’s still hard — I’m still learning.”
Williams said he had never backpedaled on the field before and never had to run full speed along with another player. Asked to give himself a grade in his first season in the defensive backfield, he said a C or C+, understanding there are things he would like to improve on.
While he knows there is room to grow as a cornerback, Williams is confident the learning curve he’s set to face will not necessarily be a steep one.
“It’s going to be shorter than what people really think; I’m a fast learner,” he said. “The defense, I’ll probably learn faster than what they think.
“My biggest learning curve is going to be being consistent with my technique.”
Given his lack of experience at the position, that makes sense. The Cardinals understand they did not draft a finished product, and in fact, while all rookies need some work to get up to speed, this one may need a little more than most. Arians said his strength right now, as a corner, is press coverage, but while Williams is learning the rest of the position he will make an immediate impact on special teams.
“One of the best special teams players in the country,” Arians said. “As he learns to play off-coverage and some of the technical things like reading routes, but we play a lot of cat coverage.
“We’ve got that cat, and he can do that right off the bat. There’s not a whole lot of learning when it comes to that.”
Arians is so excited about Williams he channeled his inner Dr. Seuss.
Poetry aside, in Williams the Cardinals have an athletically-gifted player who offers the kind of speed the Cardinals covet. That, combined with his size and rawness, equates to a tantalizing prospect who can be molded into the type of player the team thinks he should be.
“You don’t have to re-teach him a lot of things,” Arians said. “We’re fortunate. We have (cornerbacks coach) Kevin Ross, he’s been in the league a long time and one of the best press corners to ever play the game to coach him. He was ecstatic about coming back from [Williams’] workout last week. We went back and worked him out again last week and spent a lot of time with him.”
In a way, time may be the most important thing when it comes to this pick. Williams’ 40-yard dash time no doubt caught the Cardinals’ eyes, and he will need some in order to make good on the potential he enters the league with.
“When you watch this guy on tape and you watch the guy’s workout, you watch some of the things he does from a movement standpoint, whether it’s his footwork, his ability to plant-and-drive,” Keim said. “It’s amazing that a guy played running back for the majority of his career and he’s able to transition that quickly and play in the SEC against some of the top competition and have success and be able to trail and mirror and be able to run with guys with ease.
“So to me, a guy like that with that ability, just starting to scratch the surface. And the thing that gives us such great confidence is the passion and the mentality.”
Keim said the Cardinals called Williams Friday night and found out he was in the A&M locker room at the time, which to them showed something about how much he cares about football.
Williams said he stuck around the locker room with his brother because he had finished up a workout and wanted to watch the draft, but he didn’t have cable in his apartment.
Regardless, the Cardinals have a player who may be inexperienced as a cornerback but comes to the NFL with a solid pedigree and the support from highly-regarded coaches.
Williams also has a desire to improve.
Any struggles that come with learning his new position can be balanced out by the knowledge that NFL cornerbacks tend to have longer careers than NFL running backs.
“They do,” Williams said with a laugh. “They really do.”
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