In big-time college football, there are games that simply matter more than others. Rivalry games. Bowl games. Prime-time games.
But for the most gifted players, there are also “spotlight” games, or showdowns against other top NFL prospects. These are the games that coaches, general managers and scouts will go through with a fine-toothed comb in hopes of getting a sense of each player’s true talent.
For Florida State cornerback P.J. Williams, there was no doubt that in a season full of big games, his Oct. 30 showdown against Louisville star receiver DeVante Parker qualified as a spotlight game.
“Oh yeah, I was definitely excited,” Williams said at the NFL Combine of that showdown. “We both were amped.”
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The draft is still a few months away, but both players are projected to be first-round picks. At first glance, Parker — who is 6 feet 3 and 209 pounds — appears to have won the battle. He filled up the stat sheet with eight catches for 214 yards.
“He’s definitely a good receiver,” Williams said. “He’s a big receiver and he’s quick off the line, and that causes problems.”
Parker, however, did not see Williams on every play; Williams was Florida State’s boundary cornerback, which means he aligned to the short side of the field on every play. Often a team gives its best cover corner this kind of assignment, trusting that his skills — combined with limited space for the receiver to work — will help him wipe out any routes that are run in his vicinity.
To that end, Parker caught at least two passes on Williams for 52 yards in man coverage.
Williams also had man coverage on at least three passes that were directed his way against Parker.
“It was definitely a battle all game,” Williams said. “He got a few catches on me, I got the best of him a few times. When you get two players on the field lining up in front of each other, it was just a big competition. So (it was) us just competing at a high level and putting on a show for everybody.”
Games like that, combined with Williams’ 6-foot, 194-pound frame and length (31-inch arms) should catch the eye of cornerback-needy teams picking in the first or second round, where CBSSports.com currently projects him to go.
“I think P.J. Williams could still be a first-round corner at the end of the day because of his length,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said before the combine.
Williams did not run a blazing fast 40-yard dash; his time of 4.57 is decidedly average. But that shouldn’t discourage teams from taking a hard look at a competitive player who specialized in press coverage, displayed quick hips and is also a willing run support tackler.
“Some teams are looking at him inside, but I think most of the teams will continue to look at him outside in the NFL’s continuing quest to get longer,” Mayock said.
Common sense says the Chiefs should be among those teams. Last year’s third-round pick, cornerback Phillip Gaines, had similar dimensions to Williams, though he ran much faster (4.38 40-yard dash). And with cornerback Sean Smith coming off a career year and set to enter the final season of a three-year deal, it may be wise for the Chiefs to add another talented young corner.
The Chiefs, like other teams, will surely do their background work on Williams. The New York Times reported last November that Tallahassee police officers failed to properly handle a car accident involving Williams and fellow FSU cornerback Ronald Darby, in which both players fled the scene of a car accident and were issued two traffic tickets but were not subjected to alcohol tests or quizzed on why they fled the crash.
Williams, who The Times reported also had a suspended license at the time, was asked what he told NFL teams when asked about the incident.
“That I’m a good kid, I don’t have a bad background,” Williams said. “You’re not going to have any problems out of me once I get on your team.”
Provided that checks out, teams should like his on-field production. This past season, he finished with 74 tackles, including 6 1/2 for loss, one interception, 10 pass breakups and 11 passes defensed. His history against good competition shouldn’t hurt, and neither should the fact that Williams, a true junior, has only been playing cornerback for three years.
Florida State recruited Williams as a four-star safety out of Vanguard High School in Ocala, Fla.
“Me being physical, coming from safety, it was definitely an easy transition for me,” said Williams, who finished his Florida State career with four interceptions.
Williams credits the coaching he received for helping him become a quick study at cornerback, and at least one player had high praise for his work there, thanks to a prime-time showdown in late October in which two players with bright futures helped bring the best out of each other.
“I’d say P.J. Williams from Florida State (was the toughest defensive back I faced),” Parker said at the combine. “Because of the type of techniques he uses … he just changes what he does so, so you have to readjust to what he’s doing.”