‘I’m not just a backup back’: LSU’s Darrel Williams arrives at Senior Bowl to prove he ‘can be a starter anywhere’
MOBILE, Ala. — Most players invited to the Senior Bowl all share at least one quality: They were starters in college.
Take for instance three of the four former LSU participants in this week’s Senior Bowl. Defensive linemen Christian LaCouture and Greg Gilmore combine for 62 starts, both mainstays on the Tigers’ defensive line for the last several years. Receiver DJ Chark emerged as a starter in 2016 and carried the load as a senior last season.
The other two Louisiana guys at this event, Southern cornerback and Jackson native Danny Johnson and Destrehan’s Tanner Lee, combined for 76 career starts.
Then there’s former LSU running back Darrel Williams.
Williams and the more than 110 others invited to the Senior Bowl arrived late Sunday night or Monday morning for the start of an all-important week for their futures. And no one here — none of these two-time All-conference players, these career starters and All-Americans — has more to prove than the Tigers running back out of Marrero.
A career backup in Baton Rouge to heralded running backs Leonard Fournette in 2014-16 and Derrius Guice in 2017, Williams got most of his six starts because of injuries to the former and latter.
You don’t have to explain the significance of this week to the 6-1, 229-pounder.
“I want to show everybody that I’m not just a backup back,” Williams said. “I can be a starter anywhere on any team. All I need is the opportunity to show everybody. Everybody’s going to see some of my skills that they didn’t see at LSU.”
They’ll see his skills starting with Tuesday’s first day of practice and culminating with Saturday’s game, televised on NFL Network live from Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. At this event, practices are even more important than the game. NFL executives and scouts encircle the stadium for 90-to-120-minute practices each afternoon.
The Texans staff, led by fourth-year head coach Bill O’Brien, will coach the South team, while Vance Joseph, in his first year as head coach of the Broncos and brother to LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph, will guide the North.
Some of the most impactful moments happen away from the field. That includes Tuesday morning’s weigh-in. Even more significant are the individual meetings with NFL personnel at the Senior Bowl hotel, the Renaissance Riverview Plaza in Mobile’s bustling downtown.
Those began Sunday night and were on-going Monday in lobby and ballrooms of this expansive hotel.
Players come prepared. Gilmore, LSU’s former two-year starting nose tackle, sought advice from ex-LSU center Ethan Pocic, a Senior Bowl participant last year.
What’s he expecting?
“A lot of interviews,” Gilmore said. “He gave me a lot of great advice. He himself excelled at the Senior Bowl.”
So did so many others who wore the purple and gold. Linebackers Deion Jones and Duke Riley swept themselves into the spotlight here in Mobile in 2016 and 2017, respectfully, helping them soar up draft boards as Day 2 selections.
These guys are well aware of all this.
“It’s something that’s really big to my life and has a huge impact on what happens to me in the draft,” LaCouture said of this week. “I know Debo and Duke killed it. They’re a Day 2 picks. You look at guys like that who kill it (at the Senior Bowl). I want to take one day at a time and do my best, show the techniques coaches have taught to me.”
LaCouture, Gilmore and Williams were all late additions to the game, each receiving their invitation in the last 10 days. Williams learned of his invitation on Jan. 14 during the Saints’ heartbreaking loss to the Vikings in the quarterfinals of the NFL playoffs.
He received it in part because of LSU’s reputation at producing pro backs, said Phil Savage, the game’s executive director.
“You’re not really supposed to grade positions at certain schools,” Savage said Monday, “but obviously LSU has a track record of producing running backs, and some running backs that were not featured players there ended up making it in the league.”
Williams had two important people in his corner, both “advocating” for him, Savage said. LSU head athletic trainer Jack Marucci is one of Savage’s “best friends in football,” and LSU’s new pass game coordinator, Jerry Sullivan, is a longtime NFL assistant who’s respected in the game.
“He’s a gifted player,” Savage said of Williams. “He’s got the right mentality too in terms of knowing he’s going to have to do some dirty work on special teams to ultimately make it. We had a spot that opened up and felt like he was deserving of it.”
Williams’ versatility is one of his strongest assets. He was second on LSU’s team last season in catches with 22, and he’s shown quick bursts to go with between-the-tackles running he flashed over his career in one of the nation’s toughest leagues.
“The display of Darrel Williams’ character, work ethic, loyalty, humbleness he showed since being a John Ehret Patriot to now will be another display of ‘Beast Mode’ in the NFL for over 10 years,” said Corey Lambert, Williams’ high school head coach at John Ehret. “Darrel is what the NFL is looking for.”
His official weight Tuesday morning will be of interest. He dropped about 20 pounds after his junior year, replacing light-night snacks Raising Cane’s and Taco Bell with grilled chicken and baked fish. He played this past year at about 225-230 pounds.
Because of that weight loss and injury issues with Guice, he nearly eclipsed his rushing total from his first three years (851) in his last season (820). Sure, that’s impressive, but this week in Mobile can potentially have an even bigger impact.
Draft projections vary with it being less than a month into the four-month pre-draft process.
CBSSports.com lists Williams as the 17th-best running back in the draft class, just ahead of Alabama’s Bo Scarborough, both Day 3 selections. WalterFootball.com does not include Williams in a ranking of the draft’s top-26 backs, and Williams is absent from BleacherReport’s top-10 running back list.
“He just needs a shot,’ said Shawn Galmore, who coached Williams at John Ehret. “Once he gets a chance, he’s going to make a ball club.”
Louisiana college players in the Senior Bowl
WR DJ Chark, LSU — South team, No. 7DT Greg Gilmore, LSU — South team, No. 94CB Danny Johnson, Southern — South team, No. 24DE Christian LaCouture, LSU — South team, No. 90QB Tanner Lee, Nebraska (Jesuit) — North team, No. 13RB Darrel Williams, LSU — South team, No. 29