After his redshirt-freshman season in 2013, Avery Williams was already getting attention in the 2014 NFL Draft.
It just wasn’t the kind he wanted.
ESPN’s broadcast of the draft kept showing a play from Temple’s game against Central Florida on Nov. 16, 2013. The Knights’ quarterback Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, avoided pressure from the Owls’ defense to throw a 30-yard pass to a receiver who made a diving one-handed catch in the end zone to help avoid an upset by the Owls.
Williams had a chance to make a sack on the highlight-reel play, but pulled up short.
“I got people calling my phone like, ‘Hey bro, you’re on the draft,’” Williams said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, forget y’all. What you mean I’m on the draft? I just got beat.’”
He deleted his Instagram and Twitter accounts. All he wanted to focus on was erasing the play from everyone’s memories.
Now, in his final season, Williams is one of the leaders on the seventh-best total defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He is fourth on the team with 42 tackles and has forced two fumbles.
At last Tuesday’s practice, he was giving pointers to redshirt-freshmen linebackers Jeremiah Atoki and Chapelle Russell. When Russell took his official recruiting visit to Temple around December 2014, Williams challenged him to come to Temple and take his spot because he wanted the team to be as good as possible.
Coach Matt Rhule shows the film of Williams’ fourth quarter play against Central Florida as an example for the young linebackers.
“Because, you know, in these kids’ heads, they’re playing full speed, just like in 2013, Avery was playing full speed in his own mind. … And you can show the young guys that look, ‘We’re getting on you about every little thing,’” linebackers coach Mike Siravo said. “‘Here’s Avery in this program as a captain now and a starter. Now look where you are and you’re frustrated, but look at what he did in 2013 and look at how far he’s come and how far he’s learned from that.’”
Williams was recruited by former head coach Steve Addazio’s staff as a running back. After redshirting in 2012, he said he wasn’t getting many reps in the backfield.
Rhule said the coaching staff wanted to move Williams to a position where he could use his physicality more. Williams said he was approached about moving to defense before the team’s 2013 season-opener against the University of Notre Dame.
He moved to safety before backing up Tyler Matakevich at linebacker.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I’m never going to play,’” Williams said.
Eventually, he got his chance. He moved to the Sam linebacker spot in Spring 2014 and won a position battle with Stephaun Marshall. Williams and Marshall split time in the role last season and both start this season. The pair of redshirt-seniors have combined for 93 tackles this year.
At practice this week, Williams wore a brace on his left knee and had tape on his right ankle and fingers. Before the team’s game against Cincinnati, Rhule said Williams is “playing with two injuries a lot of guys wouldn’t play through.”
Williams has played in 27 straight games, including all 10 this season.
“Every time I see him, I think he’s crazy,” Russell said. “Like they try to help him out so much to when he doesn’t have to practice and he’s just always out here every day like, ‘Nah, let me practice.’”
Williams said he’d be depressed if he couldn’t play football. He played several sports growing up and traveled for competitions, including a wrestling tournament in Chicago. Williams ran track and wrestled at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore, but football, the sport he has played since he was five years old, was always his favorite.
“When I put a helmet on, it’s like, I don’t know, it makes me feel like a different person,” Williams said. “I was always little and skinny, but when I put that helmet on, I could be anybody I wanted.”
Williams may not wrestle or run track anymore, but he has kept a different high school passion through his college years: music. The curriculum at Archbishop Curley required students to choose either band or choir. Williams said because he already sang, he chose the band.
He played clarinet his first year, then bass clarinet and finally the saxophone. When he got to Temple in 2012, he found out that Marshall knew how to play piano.
His mother surprised him with a piano and he taught himself how to play using YouTube videos and by ear. It is now his favorite instrument.
“I don’t really like when people know how to do stuff that I can’t,” Williams said.
Williams and some of his teammates who live in the Diamond Green Apartments on Diamond Street near 10th have jam sessions with senior criminal justice and spanish major Nahla Ward, who will perform at the Apollo Theater in New York on Wednesday.
Marshall and redshirt-junior fullback Nick Sharga play guitar, redshirt-junior offensive lineman Leon Johnson sings and redshirt-senior defensive lineman Avery Ellis plays bass.
Williams plays piano and sings a variety of different genres including country, R&B and gospel songs like Fred Hammond’s “No Weapon,” Ward said.
Ward said she’s known Williams for about three years. They are both criminal justice majors and took a class together.
“I think what makes Avery interesting is that he is so well-rounded that you can have different conversations and it has some value to it,” Ward said.
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.