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Believe in the Big Cat: The case for Leonard Williams as the No. 1 pick

INDIANAPOLIS – Scene from the NFL Combine: as USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams was debriefed on radio row – yes, the Combine has its own radio row – he and the show’s hosts were momentarily distracted by a disturbance in the area. Behind them, a moving scrum of cameramen, journalists and NFL handlers moved noisily past. Its nucleus: Jameis Winston, ready for his close-up.

At his ensuing, highly anticipated press conference, Winston admitted making “mistakes” in the past, before stating his desire to “earn the trust” of all 32 teams – in particular the Buccaneers, owners of the first pick, and that he wants to "be the face of someone's franchise." Two days earlier, Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith talked about how he’d be comfortable with Winston as the “face of the franchise.” All that’s left to do, it seems, is for the happy couple to register, then decide where to honeymoon.

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But what if – and I don’t mean to sound jaded – Smith was posturing, to better drive up the trade value of the top pick? What if, despite the charm offensive he has unleashed in Indy, Winston is unable to “earn the trust” of the Glazer family (one of his stated goals). Gamesmanship and misdirection are to be expected at this stage of the process. Recall that the Jaguars feigned near-indifference to Blake Bortles last year, before making him the first quarterback off the board and admitting that he’d been their guy all along.

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If Tampa Bay decides Winston is too risky an investment, they’ll be fine. That’s because, behind Winston – more specifically, to his right, as he moved down radio row – there stood a better overall football player.

Strolling past, Winston seemed unaware of Williams's presence, despite the Trojan’s arresting hair. (It’s tough to miss those foot-long, fusilli locks that remind some of a lion’s mane, resulting in his nickname, The Big Cat.) But others here are keenly aware of Williams.

“I think he might be the best player in this draft,” said Gil Brandt, the white-haired eminence grise of NFL personnel gurus, who’d been hovering nearby. “He’s got long arms, great quickness. [Warren] Sapp-type quickness. He’s a rare cat.”

“He can play any spot along the front,” effused Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns GM who’s now executive director of the Senior Bowl. “He’s shown that he can two-gap – with those long arms, he gets the extension and ‘knock-back’ that coaches are looking for. But in a passing situation he can get on a shoulder and get up the field.”

Indeed, Williams is a “dangerous pass-rusher from the twist game,” according to the anonymous scout who composed his draft profile on on -- a talent so supreme that “he plays peek-a-boo with running backs while discarding blockers at will when he's ready to tackle.”

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Not bad for a guy who didn’t play football until high school. It’s not that he didn’t want to. But the Pop Warner weight limit was 180 pounds, Williams explained on Friday, and “when I was in middle school, I was already like, 210.”

According to a recent story in the Orange County Register, when a league official informed him that he was too big, “Leonard thought the man was calling him fat. He started crying.”

To get on a field, any field, he turned to rugby, a sport that sharpened his speed, versatility, and appetite for collisions. He played the No. 8 position, a kind of hybrid between the forwards (the endomorphs comprising the scrum) and the pretty-boys in the backline. Every so often, he was able to pick up the ball and run with it.  “That’s why I liked rugby so much.”

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He was recruited out of Mainland High in Daytona Beach by the notoriously intense and tireless Ed Orgeron, then coach of the USC’s defensive line. When Williams called the Trojans on the eve of the 2012 National Signing Day, he bore bad news: he was going to Florida, twenty minutes away. After a night of soul-searching – he wanted to establish his independence away from home – and phone calls from the redoubtable Orgeron, Williams had changed his mind. He was a Trojan.

One of Coach O’s selling points: USC lacked depth. Williams would get on the field faster. He got that right: by the third game of his freshman season, he was starting.

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As a sophomore, he made 74 tackles -- 13 1/2 for loss, including six sacks. “I have been around USC for over 40 years," tweeted USC athletic director Pat Haden during that season. "Leonard is one of the top 5 players I have seen. He is that good."

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​Orgeron was one of his three line coaches at USC: Pete Jenkins and Chris Wilson were the others. He learned from each, as each explored devilish new ways to line him up. “It was more fun to create matchups and be able to go against some weaker opponents every once in a while and [get] to the quarterback,” says Williams. “When the coaches switched it up for me, I liked it.”

After just three years of college ball, he decided to enter the draft, in large part to thank and lighten the load for his mother, Aviva Russek. She is a nurse and, as Williams describes her, “a single mother who is taking care of five children … all my size, so I’m sure it was hard for her to put food on the table.”

Laughter swept the room. Williams didn’t delve into why his mother was solo. His father, Clenon, is serving time for multiple offenses, including robbery with a deadly weapon, at the Marion Work Camp in Lowell, Fla. Clenon’s issues go a long way toward explaining why Leonard lived in many different homes before he was ten years old. They also explain why Aviva’s grateful middle child intends to buy her a house with his signing bonus.

“We never really had like, a hometown neighborhood, because we had so many different houses. I want to get her a house and make her stay there.”

Surely, the Bucs will begin the renovation of their distressed abode by taking Winston, or if not him, then Mariota. Right?

“Our league is so quarterback-driven,” says Brandt, “I think they have to take one ahead of [Williams].

But, as Williams points out – with an inspired nod to Forrest Gump –  recent history has taught us that taking a quarterback in the first round is hit-and-miss: “You never know what you’re going to get.”

The Big Cat, on the other hand, assures that he is “going to bring that disruption and physical-ness and … get to the quarterback and get some sacks.”

These are lofty promises. But then, this is one rare cat.