FRISCO, Texas — Some NFL personnel types consider Connor Williams this year’s top offensive tackle prospect: He’s big, long, nimble and downright nasty on the field—the scouts especially love that last part. He’s also quite the scholar, earning a spot in Texas’s prestigious McCombs School of Business and maintaining a 3.67 GPA. If it seems like Williams makes it look easy, it’s worth pointing out that his perspective coming into college was a little out of whack compared to most incoming recruits. That stems from something that happened during his sophomore year at Coppell (Texas) High School.
Williams had just been shifted from tight end to offensive tackle, and his coach called his name during one-on-one drills against the team’s defensive linemen. Williams was set to match up in pass protection against the team’s best player, an upperclassman who had scholarship offers from all over the country, a guy who would soon become an All-America at Stanford and the third pick in the 2017 NFL draft: Solomon Thomas.
“Coach puts me out there. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to go up against Solomon Thomas?! Why did you do this to me?’ ” Williams recalls.
But Williams won the rep, neutralizing the future Stanford great. He doesn’t even remember what Thomas tried to do on that snap or really how he dealt with it. What he does remember is what came next:
“My coach is hyping me up and the D-line coach is yelling at him. They said ‘Go!’ again and I go into my pass set and he just runs me over and I’m on my back. He just ran right through me. It was eye-opening.
“Going to Texas, I thought everybody would be a Solomon Thomas.”
Getting trucked that day at practice made Williams realize he needed to get a lot stronger and gain some weight, he says. Fortunately for him—and every other college offensive lineman—there is only one Solomon Thomas.
Williams, unlike seemingly most Longhorns, didn’t arrive at Texas as some highly touted recruit. Scout ranked him as the nation’s No. 38 offensive tackle prospect in the 2015 recruiting class. ESPN had him at No. 65, and 247 had him at No. 75. Regardless, then Texas O-line coach Joe Wickline loved not only Williams's flexibility and change of direction but also his football smarts and understanding of schemes. Wickline predicted Williams had big upside, and that turned out to be spot on: Williams won the starting left tackle job as a true freshman and last season became just the fourth sophomore in UT history to receive first-team All-America honors.
“Connor Williams is the best left tackle we saw last year,” one Big 12 defensive coordinator said last week. “He’s just different. I think he might be the best tackle in the country. He’s long, athletic and has the wingspan and he’s nasty.”
Here's a scary thought for that coach and other defensive guys on Texas’s schedule this fall: Williams says that since last January, he’s lost 19 pounds of body fat, gained 12 pounds of muscle and upped what he can do on the bench press, on the squat rack and in the power clean by 60 pounds each. Now, Williams measures in at 6' 6", 310 pounds. He’s gained a lot of size, quickness and experience since those days at Coppell.
This year, Tom Herman has taken over a struggling Texas program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013, bringing along Derek Warehime from his Houston staff to become Williams’s third O-line coach in three seasons in Austin. Williams has tried to take the best from each of his three position coaches. Under Wickline as a freshman, he learned how pivotal his hips are to pass sets. His sophomore season with Matt Mattox marked the first time Williams had ever been in a two-point stance and added an emphasis on the run game and driving people off the ball. Now, Warehime is harping on Williams “traveling with a base”—not getting himself out of position while working to the second level, avoiding over-striding, focusing on taking six-inch steps and keeping his composure.
Williams’s meticulous nature, which has helped him twice make the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll, carries over to the way he approaches his craft on the field. “Every play I’ll write notes on what I can get better at,” he says. “Certain plays, different flaws. If I can see it, I’m sure a defensive lineman can see it, so there’s never something not to work on.”
Williams is soft-spoken and pleasant when he doesn’t have his helmet and pads on. On Saturdays in the fall, that’s not the case.
"I’m not a mean person,” he says. “I guess it’s just a switch when the helmet comes on. I’m not sure where it comes from.”
He still has two seasons remaining at Texas, but many are projecting him as a potential first-rounder in the 2018 NFL draft. If that happened, he’d become the first Longhorn offensive lineman to be selected in the first round since 2002, when Mike Williams went fourth to the Bills. More shockingly, Connor Williams would become the first Texas O-lineman even drafted since 2008. For comparison’s sake, Alabama has had a dozen drafted in that stretch.
“That’s not something I really look at,” Williams says. “Yeah, it’s been a long streak and it would be awesome to end it, but that’s not something I’m focused on. I’m just focused on the season right now.
“My main focus is my team, and getting there every morning with my teammates reminds me why I’m there. We’re just there to get better. We have love for each other. I just wanna focus on being the best player I can be for my teammates.”
By doing that, he has probably made a lot of college defensive linemen thankful that not everyone is a Connor Williams.