Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams is on pace for his best NFL season, having already racked up six sacks, 36 tackles, and 38 total pressures in 2020.
It's a steep turnaround from Williams' first campaign with the Giants last year when Williams racked up just a half-sack after coming over in a midseason trade from the Jets in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick and a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick.
Now, after signing a one-year $16 million franchise tag in the offseason, Williams is bolstering his resume for a lucrative long-term contract extension by anchoring the Giants' defensive front, which has arguably been their biggest team strength this season.
For Williams, the Giants' coaching changes have made all the difference for his performance in 2020, mainly thanks to defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
Spencer is Williams' fourth defensive line coach in three years, and that inconsistency in leadership may have played into his ultimate on-field decline. His patience, however, has paid off for the young veteran, as he's now been paired with the coach that has helped channel his motivation and athleticism in a critical year.
"He was really good before we started coaching him, we just had to hone in on a couple things that we're already there," Spencer said. "It was just taking it from good to great and that's all I could ask of him."
Spencer has taken a personalized approach toward getting the most out of Williams this year, an approach that dates back to training camp in which Spencer would go so far as to chase Williams around the practice field to keep his motor going.
But Spencer's coaching style goes beyond what happens on the field. For Spencer, getting the most out of Williams as a player is also about making a personal connection with him as a human being.
Williams, a top-10 draft pick in 2015 out of USC, came into the NFL with lofty expectations to perform and lived up to them early. But a decline in his performance over the last two seasons raised several questions about the decision by general manager Dave Gettleman to give up assets to trade for Williams.
"He got a lot of fame early in his career, and the thing I worked on with him is just trust," Spencer said. "He hadn't reached his potential beforehand. People talk about the one year where he went to the Pro Bowl (2016), so when you get a lot of negativity coming at you, you don't know who to trust.
"When he messes up I'll tell him. When he does good I'll tell him. Developing that trust outside of football is big."
Spencer is an NFL coaching newcomer this year, having come from the college ranks where he was most recently the defensive line coach at Penn State. As a former college coach, Spencer specializes in connecting with younger players and learning about their lives off the field.
While the dynamics at the NFL level between coaches and players are different, Spencer isn't shy about applying his personalized approach to the 25-year-old Williams and the other Giants' defensive linemen to build that trust.
"I know that everybody told me that when you come to the pros, it's going to be different [in terms of] relationships with the guys, but we're all human beings," Spencer said.
"You (try to) humanize situations of an NFL football player and you ask about his life outside of football. I know he likes deep-sea fishing and swordfish and all that other stuff. Deep-sea like diving in the water and stabbing fish."
Spencer's interest in Williams has paid off in building that rapport. Williams also seems more at ease with being in the Giants system and looks as comfortable as he's ever been in an NFL defense.