Former Georgia Southern assistant Mike Mutz always felt like he had an extra set of eyes on the field in linebacker Antwione Williams.
Williams, the Lions’ second of two fifth-round NFL draft picks, played every linebacker position over the last two years, led the Eagles with 107 tackles and four sacks as a senior, and was a big reason the school won the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2014.
“We’ve walked off the field at halftime before, and he’s come up to me and said, ‘Hey, Coach, with this set, why don’t we check this? This is where they’re hurting us. And this blitz’ll be good because they keep sliding the protection this way,’ ” Mutz said. “And there’ve been several times where I was like, ‘You know what? That’s a hell of an idea.’ ”
Mutz took one of Williams’ suggestions into account in a game against Georgia State in 2014. The rivals were in a shoot-it-out 27-17 battle at halftime, and Georgia State was moving the ball at will out of its empty-set backfield.
As the teams made their way to the locker room after a late Georgia State drive ended in a turnover, Williams stopped Mutz with an idea.
“It kind of surprised us that they were running it so much, and we were walking off the field at halftime — we’ve got the lead, but they’re moving the ball on us — and he grabs me and he says, ‘Coach, why don’t we check Cover (9) to empty? We’ll be all over them,’ ” recalled Mutz, now the linebackers coach at Tulane. “And I sat there and thought about it and I was like, ‘God dang, that’s a great call.’
“We hadn’t practiced it that week. You only have a certain amount of practice time, and so we drew it up at halftime, and the very first play, they came out in empty, and we checked Cover (9). Unfortunately, it hit our nickel safety right in the shoulder pad. If he caught it, it would have been a pick-six. That helped get them out of the empty set, and the adjustment was his suggestion. It was pretty impressive. He knows football.”
The Lions are banking on Williams’ football acumen to upgrade their thin linebacking corps this fall.
He’s not likely to start — DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead will play most of the snaps at linebacker — but should be ticketed for backup and special teams duties alongside Josh Bynes and Kyle Van Noy.
“(He’s got) good size, good speed. Athletic. Good instincts,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said after the draft. “We watched the film, and when you watch that level of football, you really want the player to jump out, like he’s dominating that level of competition. And I thought he played very well at that level of competition, and we really thought it would translate to our league.
“He’s a versatile guy. He can blitz, he can cover, he can play the run. So at the end of the day, we thought he was a good player to add.”
Williams, who missed all of 2013 with a triceps injury, started at weakside linebacker during Georgia Southern’s run to the conference championship in 2014.
Last year, after do-it-all linebacker Edwin Jackson graduated and signed with the Indianapolis Colts, Williams played strongside linebacker in the Eagles’ base 4-3 defense, middle linebacker in the team’s nickel package and stayed on the field in Georgia Southern’s dime defense, as well.
“He’s had experience playing inside and outside, and I have no concerns with him covering and having to come off the field at all,” Mutz said.
Given the FCS competition Williams faced in college and his average testing results at pro day (a 4.82-second 40-yard dash), that might be wishful thinking at first.
Still, Williams said in his draft-day teleconference that he’s versatile enough and willing to do whatever the Lions ask.
“Georgia Southern is blue-collar, and it’s hard-nosed football,” Williams said. “If you watch any of my film, I’m flying around to the ball, sideline to sideline. Just flying around to the ball and hitting people real hard. I feel like that’s something I can do really well. I’m a very versatile player and I’m excited to show you guys what I can do down there in Georgia.”
©2016 Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.