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L.A. Story: NFL journey of Rams' Darious Williams would make a good Hollywood movie

The Florida Times-Union logo The Florida Times-Union 10/25/2020 Gene Frenette, Florida Times-Union
a football player is up to bat at a ball: Los Angeles Rams cornerback and Creekside High product Darious Williams makes a diving interception by cutting in front of New York Giants receiver Damion Ratley (19) earlier this season. Williams' rise from undrafted free agent to prominence in the Rams' secondary alongside Jalen Ramsey is a story of true perseverance. © Ashley Landis, AP Los Angeles Rams cornerback and Creekside High product Darious Williams makes a diving interception by cutting in front of New York Giants receiver Damion Ratley (19) earlier this season. Williams' rise from undrafted free agent to prominence in the Rams' secondary alongside Jalen Ramsey is a story of true perseverance.

Darious Williams is perfectly content being the Los Angeles Rams cornerback that few people talk about and sparingly talks to the media, even though his path to the NFL is a remarkable coming-out-of-nowhere story.

Really, where do you even begin with the wide range of options of how much the Creekside High product defied the odds?

There’s the part about not being allowed to play football his sophomore year of high school – he transferred from Bartram Trail after Creekside opened in 2008 — because former head coach Greg Stanton only wanted kids who invested time in summer workouts. Williams, then 5-foot-7, was regarded as more of a speedy point guard than a football player.

a group of people playing baseball on a field: Los Angeles Rams defensive back Darious Williams (31) intercepts the ball in front of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (19) during the third quarter of NFL football at Lincoln Financial Field on September 20, 2020. [Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports] © Bill Streicher, [Bill Streicher/USAToday Sports] Los Angeles Rams defensive back Darious Williams (31) intercepts the ball in front of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (19) during the third quarter of NFL football at Lincoln Financial Field on September 20, 2020. [Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports]

Or maybe it’s the hurdle of spending one year (2012) at Division III Marietta (Oh.) College, not liking it much, then coming home after one semester and being rejected as a walk-on candidate at UAB the following spring. Former UAB athletic director Brian Mackin told Williams there were no more spots available.

Or when UAB got a new coach in Bill Clark in 2014, after which Williams made it as a walk-on and earned a scholarship midway through that season, only to have the school administration shut down the program a few weeks after the season.

All of that is just a prelude to maybe the most amazing part of Williams’ journey. He came home after UAB dropped football, which the administration reinstated after much public pressure in June 2015, and worked as a floral delivery man at Ace Hardware while taking classes at Florida State College of Jacksonville.

It would be another two years before Williams, who remained loyal to UAB despite getting numerous scholarship offers to transfer, would resume playing college football.

Somehow, from so much adversity and all those crazy interruptions, Darious Darnelle Williams — son of a retired U.S. Navy officer, Dexter, and a registered nurse, Renita – managed to make it as a starting cornerback in the same Rams’ secondary with former Jaguars’ All-Pro Jalen Ramsey.

Williams, No. 31, will be in the lineup on Monday Night Football when the Rams host the Chicago Bears, likely playing around 80 percent of the snaps. While opposing quarterbacks tend to not throw many passes Ramsey’s way, the beneficiary is often Williams, a 5-foot-9, ball-hawking cornerback who already has four interceptions in his last eight games.  

“It’s a Cinderella story,” said Dexter. “Up until midway through his senior year at UAB, I never once heard Darious mention anything about going to the NFL. He just wanted a scholarship to go to school.”

That’s why the football ascent of Williams, now playing a significant part of the Rams’ No. 4-ranked defense (also fourth in pass defense), has largely flown under the radar.

But as Williams keeps making big plays — like that diving interception to preserve a Week 4 win over the New York Giants, and another just like it in the end zone against Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Carson Wentz in Week 2 — his days of anonymity are long gone.

“Late bloomer” in football 

There was never much question about Williams’ athleticism growing up. It’s just that he lacked the size to truly stand out, which partly explains why it took him a long time to find his true niche as a football player.

Born in San Diego, he played exclusively baseball until the Navy transferred Dexter to Jacksonville. At age 9, after moving to the Julington Creek area, Darious gave football a try in Pop Warner while continuing to hone his skills in hoops.

When Creekside opened in 2008, Stanton declined to bring him out for football because he wasn’t in the summer workout program. So Williams, the MVP of his junior varsity basketball team, never played varsity football until his junior year.

“I would say that he was a basketball player that came out for football,” Stanton said. “He was a late bloomer when it comes to football. There’s no doubt the kid was an athlete. He could make people miss in the open space.”

Williams’ role in the Creekside program wasn’t clearly defined at first. Dexter recalls his son being the last of nine cornerbacks in the 2009 preseason to get a look as a potential starter. He was a Swiss Army knife-type player for the Knights, being featured as a slot receiver, Wildcat running back and finally a cornerback.

a football player throwing a ball: Creekside's Darious Williams (2) tries to fight off the tackle attempt of Ponte Vedra's Kenny Byram (34) in a 2010 high school game. © Gary McCullough/St. Augustine Record Creekside's Darious Williams (2) tries to fight off the tackle attempt of Ponte Vedra's Kenny Byram (34) in a 2010 high school game.

Though he evolved into one of Creekside’s better players, the program struggling through a 3-7 season in 2010 did nothing to help Williams gain any traction with recruiters. There were no scholarship offers, so he took a chance by going to Marietta, which had a couple other Jacksonville players on its roster that Williams didn’t even know.

“A lot of people had never heard of Darious,” said Stanton. “He wasn’t a Super 11 guy or a big-time recruit coming out of high school.”

 Crazy ride with UAB 

Despite going to Marietta and intercepting five passes in his first college season, Williams was back home after one semester. While taking classes at FSCJ, he began scouting for his next football destination and found no takers.

He thought about walking on at Jacksonville (Ala.) State with another player from St. Augustine, but they never visited the campus. Then UAB, before Clark’s arrival, turned Williams down and he found himself out of football for two years.

Even when the Blazers gave him a walk-on tryout in the spring of 2014, Darious didn’t have high hopes of making the team. It was only a 15-minute workout, according to Dexter, so “[Darious] didn’t think he made it because there wasn’t much time for the coaches to look at him.”

Well, not only did Williams suit up for UAB, but Clark gave him a scholarship midway through that first season when he earned a starting job.

“It didn’t take long before we knew he could play for us,” Clark said. “We were last in almost every defensive category [in Conference USA] and the secondary was pretty suspect. Here’s this walk-on that catches your eyes immediately.

“His feet is what stood out, and it was pretty noticeable early on. We put our guys in a lot of man, press coverage. It’s a calling card for us. Darious was a nice fit. Every week, you’re figuring how special this guy is and the same went for him as a person.”

Unfortunately, just as Williams hit upon an ideal football destination and intercepted five passes, he found himself in limbo again. UAB pulled the plug on the program in December 2014, forcing many players to scatter for a new place to play.

Even worse, though the school reinstated Blazers’ football six months later, it wasn’t going to restart until 2017. Williams had already gone on a two-year hiatus without football, and now it was going to be another 18 months.

He could have accepted offers from C-USA rival Southern Miss, along with Sun Belt members Troy and South Alabama, and played right away, but Williams couldn’t bring himself to leave Clark or UAB. So he bided his time back home, delivering flowers for Ace over a two-month period and taking a couple classes. He returned to Birmingham for the 2016-17 academic year, going through what amounted to a redshirt season for the entire program.

“I still remember Darious saying to me, ‘Coach, I haven’t gone anywhere,’ “ Clark said. “It sure was great to have that guy back.”

Williams, who politely declined via text a direct phone interview for this story because he didn’t want to talk about his distant past,  acknowledged in a video interview in November 2015, that his loyalty to UAB compelled him to stay.

“It was a big part,” said Darious. “Knowing these coaches actually gave me a chance as a walk-on, they actually gave me a shot.

“You can’t help what happened [about UAB dropping football]. We’re just looking to prove that people who wanted to take the program away shouldn’t have.”

When asked in a text about what got him through 3 ½ years of football exile over two different stages of college, Darious replied: “Believe in Jesus. That’s all I have [is prayer], that’s all I did.”

Breakthrough season 

Billy Johnson, a Rams’ scout responsible for monitoring college senior starters in five states across the Southeast, including Alabama, puts out 200-300 grades every year. He came to a couple UAB practices, scouted Williams in a 23-22 win over Louisiana Tech in October, 2017, and then attended his Pro Day the following spring.

Johnson thought Darious was good enough to at least make it as an NFL practice-squad player. He loved his makeup, and the game tapes verified Williams, who wore No. 1 in his final college season, made steady improvement throughout 2017.

“The first time we put a grade on him was probably after the Louisiana Tech game,” said Johnson. “Darious isn’t a very big guy. I can’t say he stands out when you look at potential players. But I remember watching film, he was an athletic guy that coaches raved about. He just got better and better as the year went on.”

“Darious always had that hard work ethic,” Clark added. “By his senior year, he saw, ‘I can do this.’ “

For the first time in his athletic career, Williams’ skill set began garnering some attention, most notably in a 36-7 November loss at Florida. While UAB struggled a bit against the Gators’ ground attack, UF quarterback Feleipe Franks completed only 15 of 30 passes for 152 yards (2 TDs). Williams had a career-high four pass breakups, twice reaching in to pry balls out of receivers’ hands at the last second.

“That’s when you started hearing he might have a chance to go to the NFL,” said Dexter.

His youngest son had a stupendous senior year, accumulating 50 tackles, 15 passes defensed, five interceptions, made first-team Pro Football Focus All-American and recorded the second-highest coverage grade of any FBS cornerback.

But like his twice-interrupted college career, Williams discovered he would have to prove himself all over again.

Surprising NFL snub 

Rams’ general manager Les Snead, with the benefit of hindsight, is somewhat embarrassed that Williams went through the entire 2018 NFL draft without anybody calling his name.

It’s not like the 5-foot-9, 187-pound cornerback wasn’t on the team’s radar. Johnson had a late-round grade on Williams. Another Rams scout from Birmingham, Ted Monago, liked his skill set and another big fan was Brad Holmes, the Rams’ director of college scouting.

Williams’ measurables were more than up to par. On his Pro Day, his 40 time, vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone drill time would have been in the top-10 of all the drafted cornerbacks.

Plus, the Rams had him in for a visit as one of their top 30 non-Combine prospects.

“I think those two or three years off in college gave him more time to mature,” said Snead. “He was a little wiser. You felt like you were chatting with a professional that had his head on straight.”

Still, the Rams didn’t take him. And here’s the part that makes Williams going undrafted seem so odd: the Rams, who had Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib as starters in 2018, made six combined picks in the sixth and seventh rounds and never selected Williams or any defensive back.

“Darious was on our draft board,” said Snead. “The third day of that draft, I sent Brad [Holmes] home early that day because his wife was having their first child. We joke that if it wasn’t for that, Darious would have been a Ram on draft day.”

The Rams tried to make up for not taking Williams by pursuing him as an undrafted free agent, but the Baltimore Ravens offered a little bit more money. Williams accepted and made their 53-man roster, getting 26 snaps on special teams in three games. He was then among the NFL’s oldest rookies at 25 years, 6 months.

But when cornerback Jimmy Smith came off his 4-game suspension, Baltimore released Williams and he was claimed off waivers two days later by the Rams. Except for a season-ending game against the San Francisco 49ers, he spent the rest of that season on the Rams’ practice squad.

Little did Williams know at the time, but Ramsey’s ongoing feud and eventual breakup with the Jaguars in October, 2019, proved to be a huge boost for his career.

Quiet ball-hawker 

Five days after Ramsey was traded to the Rams, he entered a game against the Atlanta Falcons as a substitute for Williams, who made his first NFL start. Williams ended up scoring his first NFL touchdown on the next-to-last play of a 37-10 victory when the Falcons fumbled a punt and he recovered it in the end zone.

But the memory from his first NFL start that had Dexter’s son most excited was something else. “I remember Darious saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m going against [Falcons’ receiver] Julio Jones. I used to play him on the Madden game,’ “ said his father. “That was his No. 1 receiver.”

That Falcons game set the wheels in motion for Williams’ career to reach another level. Besides acquiring Ramsey, the Rams had put Talib on injured reserve and traded Peters to Baltimore the previous week.

An ankle injury put Williams on the shelf for three games, but when he returned, his playing time increased significantly. He started the last two games, once opposite Ramsey and the other opposite Troy Hill, intercepting one pass each against AFC West rivals San Francisco and Arizona.

Though the Rams fired longtime NFL defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and replaced him with former Denver Broncos linebackers coach Brandon Staley, the change did nothing to impede Williams’ expanding role.

Backup quarterback John Wolford, a Bishop Kenny product, signed with the Rams in April, 2019, and was instantly taken in by Williams' all-around game..

"I noticed him when I first arrived in LA," Wolford said via text. "He is versatile, plays the run and the pass well and has a great combination of talent and instincts. Have been nothing but impressed with him since I've been in LA."

In 2020, the undrafted cornerback who struggled to find a college home has started four games in nickel packages and has played 337 of the Rams’ 400 defensive snaps (84.2 percent). Williams always plays on the outside boundary, with Ramsey or Troy Hill moving inside to cover the slot receiver.

“He’s an important piece of the [Super Bowl] mission,” Snead said of Williams.

In particular, his two interceptions this season illustrate why the cornerback who is the antithesis of Ramsey in demeanor and style might have a long-term stay in Los Angeles.

Against the Eagles, who were threatening to take a third-quarter lead, Williams undercut receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone and made a diving catch. Two weeks later, when the Giants were driving for a potential tying score in the final minute, Williams again stretched his body out near the sideline at the Rams’ 6, right in front of receiver Damion Ratley, to grab the ball less than a foot off the ground.

That timely interception came just one week after Williams was flagged for a controversial fourth-down pass interference call against the Buffalo Bills. It gave quarterback Josh Allen a reprieve to win the game on the next play, but Williams put it behind him and sealed victory for the Rams in his next start.

“During that drive, I felt like they were going to come back to it because I kind of slowed up on a [earlier] dig route,” Williams said after the game. “Luckily, I just made a play on it.”

When asked if he had a penchant for making big plays, Williams replied: “That’s just God blessing me, man. At the end of the day, I try to be basically like a red dot, somebody that’s dangerous on the field. I want every quarterback, I want everybody who targets me to know there’s a 50-50 chance of getting a pick.”

That’s about the closest Williams comes to trash-talk or making a bold statement. He describes himself as quiet and reticent, sort of the anti-Ramsey, and tends to give short answers the few times he does media interviews.

But Williams is quick to credit Ramsey’s presence as a big reason why his ball-hawking skills have come to the forefront in the NFL. His four interceptions since Week 16 of last season are tied for the second-most in the league over that span, behind only the New York Jets’ Pierre Desir.

“Jalen, that’s a dog on the other side,” Williams said. “I know teams are scared of him. That’s probably a lot of reasons why I get targets at me, PBUs, whatever it is. All credit to Jalen because he’s so good on the other side.”

But the truth is Darious Williams is a pretty good cornerback in his own right. He just needed a lot of time to prove he was worthy of an NFL opportunity.

As Johnson, the Rams’ scout, aptly put it: “I don’t know of another story like it. You got to have a lot of self-confidence to push through all that he went through at UAB. The winding road, not playing football for two or three years, he just never quit. He kept a dream alive and achieved it.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that Williams is playing for an NFL franchise with Hollywood as a backdrop. He’s writing a football script that would make a good movie about hope and perseverance.

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: L.A. Story: NFL journey of Rams' Darious Williams would make a good Hollywood movie

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