Northern Iowa football's defensive toughness starts at the nose
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Xavier Williams has one of the toughest jobs in football.
As a defensive tackle in the scrum that takes place in the trenches every Saturday, he's been slugged, grabbed, pinched, kneed, kicked, elbowed and tackled.
The University of Northern Iowa senior welcomes the challenge. He won't tell you he loves every part of it.
"It's not always fun," says the Panthers' 6-foot-4, 295-pound preseason all-American. "Yeah, I wish I had David Johnson's job, honestly. I don't think there's anybody out here who'd really want to trade with me. But we've all got a job to do. You've just got to buy in.
"When you're prepared, you can take it on. Everybody's got to do their job, so if that means getting beat up by three guys every play then, hey, that's the way it's going to be."
Few defensive tackles are more prepared than Williams, a Kansas City, Mo., native heading into his third season as a UNI starter and coming off a monster junior season that included 74 tackles, six quarterback sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass deflections.
"I put on about 10 pounds last year and decided to lose that this year to help myself be a little quicker and a little more agile and be able to play a little longer," said Williams. "I've been working on my pass rush moves more, trying to become a lot more consistent ... just hone my technique and become a lot more disciplined in playing my gaps, studying other teams and how they play, keys I believe I can key in on to give us an advantage.
"More consistency, that's all it is. Like Paup (UNI defensive line coach and former NFL defensive player of the year Bryce) always says, when you start perfecting the little things, they'll all come together and make the big picture so much clearer."
Paup sees a player who continues to challenge himself as a player and a person.
"He could just kind of float ... he's pretty darned good," noted Paup. "In two games last year, he made 28 tackles, which is almost unheard of from a true noseguard.
"He's willing to take the criticism, and it gets to a point now where we're splitting hairs with him. It's just the little things we're trying to tweak. You control your opponent with good technique. We're trying to get him to see every different situation how he can improve a little bit to get the advantage."
Said the UNI assistant, "He's not vocal all the time, but in our room he has definitely stepped it up. If I'm coaching a defensive end and he sees something with a noseguard or the other tackle, he'll coach them while I'm coaching another player. To have that wisdom to give to the younger guys makes the younger kids come in and see that this is the way you get better."
Head coach Mark Farley has labeled Williams as one of the faces of the UNI program.
"I understand it's a compliment," said Williams. "What kid doesn't want to have someone say that about them? The pressure's always on, but I've always taken a lot on myself ... I've got to play the best, I've got to be the best, I've got to give it my all. If I just keep working at it, I'll be where I want to be."
Williams will get another major test Aug. 30 when UNI opens its season at Iowa, which features one of the country's top offensive lines.
"They do a good job coaching their offensive line," Paup said. "It's going to be a real test for us. I'm excited to see him play against Iowa. It will be a good barometer of where he's at. We're going to see where he's at in that game, but I have a feeling he'll be alright."
And a year from now, it won't surprise Paup if his star pupil has earned a spot on an NFL roster.
"I definitely think so," said Paup. "He does it off the field. He's a good, quality human being. I would definitely say he's going to have a shot."
That's something that isn't on Williams' radar at present.
"Until the end of last year, I didn't think I would be that good to get to the NFL," he explained. "Even now with some people talking about it, I don't look on it. I just know if I just keep playing to the best of my ability, if that's going to happen it'll come to me."
Rather, Williams is focused on helping UNI make a run at a national championship and putting a stamp on a college career that's been more than he ever thought it could be.
"It's been much more," he said. "I know Paup coming here and helping me out took my game to a whole new level ... somewhere I never thought I would be."