SNELLVILLE, Ga. — A late-April trip to Baltimore during 2016 was a prestigious honor for a high school quarterback, particularly one more than a year away from college football. The Rivals Quarterback Challenge was a selective event, plucking 12 of the best quarterbacks from the across the country. They had to fight through a gauntlet of regional camps to earn their trip to Maryland. Simply being chosen was a major accomplishment. It meant analysts were impressed and college coaches believed. For a prospect like Jarren Williams, it can mean an opportunity to establish himself on the national scene.
The sophomore, unranked as a prospect at the time, didn’t have much of a reputation. He was a few days away from earning his first SEC offer, Kentucky, and a few months away from an impressive first season at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, Ga.
He knew he was better than he showed April 25. His mechanics were messy and he couldn’t throw particularly hard — those issues he knew he had to work on — but he was inaccurate, too.
The criticism was damning, although Williams won’t say it was undeserved. Josh Hemholdt of Rivals.com was toughest. He wrote:
Until the sophomore is able to work on his throwing mechanics, develop a consistent release point and spin a good football, it will be difficult to project him to the position in college.
Williams couldn’t believe it. Of course, he hadn’t been perfect, but one bad day was enough to shed doubt upon his potential? He wouldn’t forget. He couldn’t forget.
Williams took a screenshot on his cell phone. He went back to look at it every day. He became obsessive. He had to change everything if he wanted to be the quarterback he knew he could be — the quarterback who will compete for a starting job as a freshman beginning Tuesday when he suits up for Miami’s first spring practice.
“It’s embarrassing,” Williams told DieHards, thinking back not just to the article, but also his performance that day. “You have your parents, your family come out and support you, and you don’t perform at a high level. For them to say something like that, it kind of just motivated me in a way that I can’t even explain to you.”
‘He’s a quarterback’
Williams was destined to be a wide receiver. If you watched highlights of him at a young age, his father says, you’d think so, too.
Anthony Williams, Jarren’s father, was his son’s football coach from a young age, first when the future Hurricane was an offensive lineman and linebacker, and then when he slimmed down a bit to play running back.
Youth football is a different sport than it becomes even a few years later when quarterbacks hit their teenage — or even preteen — years and become at least competent throwing the ball. Williams was an athletic running back, but the size which forced him to play the line when he was young made him intriguing as a wideout whenever passing became an option.
There was only one hiccup: The only quarterback who could take advantage of a receiver like Williams was Williams.
“A lot of the coaches were watching him throw the ball,” Anthony Williams told DieHards, “and they were like, That’s your quarterback.”
The coach was hesitant until a trusted voice chimed in.
Fred Jones has been a staple in the Georgia football scene for the better part of three decades. He was a star at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School during the 1980s before playing at Grambling State and spending four seasons as a wide receiver with the Chiefs.
A stray game of catch with the so-called wide receiver was all Jones needed to see. A throw went long and Williams chased it to a fence. He loaded back and threw a bomb back to Jones.
“Look, your son is a quarterback,” Anthony Williams remembers Jones saying. “I don’t know why you’re wasting his time at receiver. He’s a quarterback.”
Williams was 7 or 8 at the time and his move to quarterback changed everything. While almost every other team in the Atlanta metropolitan area was handing the ball off 30 times per game, Williams was slinging the ball like an air-raid quarterback. It wasn’t unusual for opposing coaches to demand Williams’ birth certificate, not because the quarterback marvel couldn’t possibly be the age his father said he was. Opponents simply couldn’t believe a child could fire the ball around the field with such accuracy and poise.
He was a natural. There was no throwing coach in the picture or quarterbacking pedigree to live up to. Williams simply learned by throwing a football or baseball in the backyard with his father. Raw ability was enough to take him far and by his sophomore year of high school he was an unquestionable starter for Snellville’s Shiloh High School.
“You saw a lot of talent,” said Todd Wofford, who got to coach Williams the next season at Central Gwinnett. “Just raw.”
‘He became a machine’
In April of 2016, Williams learned the hard way at the Quarterback Challenge he wasn’t the natural maybe everyone thought he was. He watched Trevor Lawrence, another Georgia quarterback in the Class of 2018, live up to his 5-star rating. He saw Mac Jones, a 4-star quarterback in the Class of 2017, win the competition and help jump-start his path to Alabama. Emory Jones, also from Georgia, earned recognition as having the strongest arm. Williams noticed everyone else threw differently than he did.
“It was like a whip,” he said, marveling at the textbook form most of the elite signal callers possessed.
Williams’ delivery was as rudimentary. He’d lift his right arm straight to his ear and try to fire darts. Williams didn’t worry much about what his legs were doing. He didn’t even realize his left arm played a role in a right-handed quarterback’s delivery. All he knew was his arm always hurt so bad when he was done throwing and he knew it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The day in Baltimore was one of the most embarrassing experiences of his football career. It was also probably the most important.
“He became a machine,” Wofford told DieHards shortly before Williams committed to Miami.
I would like to start by thanking the man above, and everyone who has been involved in this process with me. Im glad to say that I’ve finally made my decision!! @Left__Field__ pic.twitter.com/PMnpFSEifO
— J D U B4️⃣’L🤞 (@Jarren2Williams) December 6, 2017
Williams saw what Jones could do, so one aspiring quarterback from Georgia helped another. Jones had already been working with Quincy Avery for years and Williams wanted to learn to throw like Jones. Williams tagged along with Jones for a training session with Avery, one of the most respected quarterback coaches in the country.
The crop of Georgia quarterbacks in the Class of 2018 is unprecedented. Lawrence, Jones, Williams and 5-star dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields all finished among the top 100 in the 247Sports composite rankings. If there’s one thread which can best help explain how this happened, it might be Avery. The coach worked with Jones, Williams and Fields during their high school years.
Williams teamed up with Avery last. After Williams’ first meeting, his trips to Avery became routine. Two or three times each week he’d work with the coach, trying to rebuild his delivery.
“He worked his [butt] off,” Avery told DieHards.
The first step was fixing everything with Williams’ right arm. The quarterback exhibited what is known as “lifting.” He raised the ball straight above his head without much regard for how it got there, which threw off everything. His arms would get ahead of his feet leaving his upper body to handle too much of the load. His left arm hung loose, leaving his release point inconsistent.
Avery got Williams to throw in a textbook fashion. He’d now load the ball with his arm forming a triangle. He kept his left elbow tight against his side. Williams constantly watched videos of Drew Brees and went through his throwing motion literally hundreds of times each day.
It took Avery a few weeks to be sure Williams would eventually turn the corner. Williams had thrown incorrectly for so long — and with so much success — Avery wasn’t sure he’d be able to break his habit. Everything clicked sooner than he expected.
“Once he was fixed,” Avery said, “he turned into a bad man.”
Avery spent the rest of his time with Williams working on drops and developing an array of “counter moves” in the pocket. A quarterback’s most important skill is the ability to deal with adversity, to survive — or even thrive — when protection breaks down.
As a junior, Williams took a step, throwing for 2,618 yards, 26 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, while running for another 396 yards and 9 touchdowns. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes.
“I said I’m going to work my butt off,” Williams said, “to where they can’t say anything about me.”
‘It’s just meant to be’
A year had passed since Williams’ debacle in Baltimore and now the quarterback was a different prospect. He had committed to Kentucky and had drawn the attention of just about every college coach across the Southeast, including Mark Richt.
The Opening regionals, which span the country through the end of winter and beginning of spring, are important for any prospect, but particularly quarterbacks. A strong performance can springboard a prospect to the Elite 11 finals.
The Opening Charlotte regional during May was maybe the best chance to see elite quarterback prospects. Lawrence and Jones headlined the competition, and Williams didn’t want to be forgotten. All three earned their way to the next stage of Elite 11 competition and, eventually, a chance to compete in The Opening finals.
Williams scoured his roster when he arrived in Beaverton, Ore., and noticed a trend. Just about every skill position player he threw to — pass catchers Mark Pope, Brian Hightower, Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory, and running backs Lorenzo Lingard and Cam’Ron Davis — was committed to the Hurricanes. For about a week in Oregon, Williams built a chemistry with the group. For a time, it seemed their relationship would become just a brief memory.
On Nov. 1, 4-star pro-style quarterback Artur Sitkowski made a stunning announcement, de-committing from Miami and flipping to Rutgers. Immediately, the athletes who had played with Williams in Oregon badgered Richt. The coaching staff had to try to flip Williams from Kentucky.
“It’s crazy how it worked out,” Williams said. “It’s meant to be.”
The Hurricanes managed to walk away with one of the potential biggest steals of the cycle. Williams finished as a 4-star pro-style quarterback and the nation’s No. 77 overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings. He played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and will have at least an outside chance to start for an ACC contender in 2018.
It’s strange to think back to his disastrous performance in Baltimore. It still embarrasses and angers him, only now he appreciates it, too. None of this may have happened had he been a little better.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” Williams said. “I’m actually happy that it happened because it actually helped me. Like, ‘Dude, you have to fix this.’
“Nothing like this will ever happen again.”
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