Teammates called him the Lion King before he even played a down of college football.
And when he takes off his helmet, you can certainly understand why.
But now freshman Leonard Williams is proving, like the Lion King, he doesn’t just have a wild mane of hair, but he also has the hunting ability to track his prey and take it down.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive tackle has piled up 18 tackles and five and a half sacks through his first six games as a Trojan.
“As a true freshman, he’s been here, what, probably 2-3 months? And he’s making a huge impact,” said Coach Lane Kiffin after practice Wednesday.
Williams got his first start on the defensive line on the road at Utah and kept the role a week later at Washington. Kiffin says his performance against the Huskies was his best yet.
“(He) continues to improve,” he said. “At times he was dominating on the road as a true freshman. That says a lot.”
Against Washington Williams recorded four tackles and one and half sack. His biggest play of the night came on a fumble recovery late in the fourth quarter to seal the Trojan win.
“He’s been more productive than most freshman we’ve had,” explained Defensive Line Coach Ed Orgeron.
“I came in with confidence only because Coach (Orgeron) was telling me that they were going to need me right away,” Williams explained of his early career success.
The Daytona Beach, Florida native also knows he still has a ways to go. The second half of the Trojans’ schedule should prove to be much more challenging than the first and it will be a telling sign of the true progress of not only the freshman, but the entire defensive line.
“We’re going to find out,” Orgeron said when asked how he expects the line to perform. “There are some teams that are going to be bigger and stronger and faster than the teams we have been playing and we’ll see how they hold up.”
If the first six are even the smallest indication, it’s hard to think Williams will be anything but just fine, given he’s risen to every challenge already presented this season.
“He’s just one of those rare guys who can come in as a true freshman and not just play but make an impact,” Kiffin said.
But even better than being one of those rare guys, is being the Lion King.
Stealing from the SEC
Williams is often referred to by Kiffin as an SEC defensive lineman, saying that if you study the NFL draft, the south is where most of the defensive linemen come from.
An SEC defensive lineman, he almost was. A future NFL-draft pick he is sure to be.
Williams almost committed to Florida before USC coaches were able to keep him on the phone until the early-hours of the morning to convince him to come west.
“It’s not easy to end up getting (players from the south) because it’s easier for those guys to stay at home,” explained Orgeron. “You’ve got to have some type of connection, just like Monte (Kiffin) was connected to (Williams’) coaches. That’s what came through in the end.”
Now, as Orgeron says, the Trojan coaching staff believes they not only took him from the SEC but that they will eventually turn around and give him to the NFL.
“Our recipe for going out of state (to recruit) is to get potential first round draft picks and that’s what we thought Leonard was,” he said.