In their final home game of the 2017 college football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores felt that if they were to have any chance of defeating the visiting Missouri Tigers, they needed to load up the box defensively to stop the run.
To do that, however, meant exposing true sophomore cornerback Joejuan Williams to man-to-man coverage against a number of talented Missouri receivers, who'd be targeted by quarterback Drew Lock, himself no slouch. This past April, the Denver Broncos selected Lock with their second-round draft choice.
Overall, it wasn't a great day for Vandy, as the Commodores surrendered nearly 200 yards rushing during a 45-17 loss to the Tigers. Williams, though, had a day many witnesses will not soon forget.
"I think he didn't allow a single catch. Maybe one," recalls assistant coach Marc Mattioli, who oversees Vanderbilt's defensive backfield.
"That, to me, was the game – and I think he even realized – that we all kind of looked at each other, like, 'Wow, this kid can be a really special player.' I think we knew already that he was an NFL-type player, but that was the game I realized he was truly special."
Mattioli first met Williams when the latter was about to become a high school senior. Through no fault of his own, Williams was deemed ineligible to play football in his final prep year. Difficult family circumstances forced him to transfer from a private school to a public one, and an exception would not be granted him.
Nevertheless, a number of Southeast Conference (SEC) programs, including Vanderbilt, were interested in this tall, powerful cornerback.
"My first impression of the kid." Mattioli continues, "was that he was really talented, but kind of unsure what that talent was going to amount to or what he was really capable of. He didn't know what it was going to take or how he was going to get there.
"I think the biggest thing that's changed over the years is his level of confidence now, especially when he's competing against other players at a high level. It's just way higher than it was before, even just as a person in general. I think he's become much more comfortable in his own skin, much more confident in himself as a competitor.
"He became much more vocal as a leader as his career went on. He's very focused and locked in on what he has to do, but he exudes those competitive qualities and other people pick up on that and feed off that. I wouldn't say he's just a lead-by-example guy, because he will talk, but it's more his energy and passion than just his words."
The Vanderbilt football program recently released a 10-minute video about Williams in which that passion is prominently on display. In it, the player is asked if there's anything he'd like to say about a clearly painful subject: his biological father. At first, Williams can't find any words. He chokes up and just shakes his head "no." Later, he proclaims that he uses that man now as motivation "to be better than him in everything that I did in life."
SOME OF THE WORST TIMES
Williams' competitive nature may have been stoked by his challenging upbringing. His father, a one-time Tennessee high school football sensation, rarely appeared in Williams' life. In a feature story on the Vanderbilt Athletics website, Williams revealed, "By the time I was in middle school, he was completely gone. Those are some of the worst times."
They would get worse. When he was 12, his mother would be arrested on drug charges and serve jail time, forcing Williams and his older brother to move in with their grandmother for several years. Though he is now reunited with his mother, Williams survived a crucible during those formative years.
Vanderbilt's coaches then decided to throw him into another one on the gridiron.
"As a player, because of his talent level, we put him in some situations that were really demanding in games, probably before he was ready," explained Mattioli. "As a true freshman, he would be in 1-on1 situations [in games] with no help against some really good receivers. He was forced to sink or swim. We wouldn't have done that unless we knew what he was capable of doing on a sheer talent level. Sometimes when you get put in those positions, whether it's in the classroom or on the football field, you're forced to grow up.
"Obviously, college is a time where you grow a lot as a person. I think he wasn't quite certain if he was going to be able to do all the schoolwork at Vanderbilt or fit in at Vanderbilt. I think he learned pretty quickly in his first semester that he was capable of doing the work, and that if he worked hard at school and at football, then he was going to improve."
Cornerbacks who stand nearly 6-4 and weighs 200-plus pounds are rare athletes, even in the National Football League. That's why Williams' physical gifts were in such demand when it came time for choosing a college. Thanks in part to a strong bond with Commodores head coach Derek Mason, Williams eventually decided to stay in his hometown of Nashville and enroll at Vanderbilt.
Yet, in order to take those natural talents even further, Williams needed to focus more intently on the cerebral aspect of football. That's where Mattioli pushed Williams to take off-field studying of the game more seriously. As Williams' position coach in 2016 and '17 (Terrance Brown took over as Vandy's cornerbacks coach last season), Mattioli found Williams a willing pupil.
"Very good, very meticulous in his notes," added Mattioli. "He's learned to become a student of the game. He's really grown in that and really understood the importance of it."
As evidence, Mattioli cites a particular interception Williams made during a victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks last season.
"After the game, he was joking about how, we were playing man [coverage], but in his peripheral vision, he saw a guy run to the flat, and he knew that meant his guy was about to run a curl, and he jumped [the route] and picked it off. He was smiling and joking with me after the game about understanding route concepts and all the film study he's done over the course of the years. That made me really proud and happy."
AN EASY PERSON TO LOVE BACK
Mattioli and the rest of the Vanderbilt coaching staff must have been even more proud to hear Williams' name called by the six-time Super Bowl Champion Patriots during Round 2 of this year's NFL Draft. They understand he'll still need to work on his skills at the next level, but Mattioli believes his former player has already proven he's capable of rising to the challenge.
"We were more of a man [coverage] team at Vanderbilt. We played some zone, but playing zone coverage, he can probably improve. But I wouldn't call it an area of weakness. As a press-man guy, I think that's what he does best. He's a 6-3-and-a-half, 6-4 guy with a big frame, he's physical and runs well and gets his hands on you. Really big catch radius and is able to defend a big catch radius.
"He's big enough and physical enough," Mattioli asserts, "that he can tackle and support the edges in the run game. He's able to get some of those bigger backs on the ground without taking too much punishment to his body. He's a kid that does not like to lose or get beat, ever. It bothers him. He takes it personally, but he's able to shake it off and move on. That's going to suit him well [in the NFL]."
Of course, in Williams, the Patriots aren't just getting a talented football player. Just as importantly, they're also getting what Mattioli insists is a quality individual.
"Good heart. Kind. Cares about people. He's compassionate. He's just a loving person, and that's why he's an easy person to root for and love back," the coach gushes. "Big smile. He's always happy to see you, first one to give you a big hug. That's what I'll think about when I think about Joejuan.
"He's battle-tested. I think the Patriots got a good one. I'm excited for him."