By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe
Jamyest Williams was considered one of the top defensive backs and best athletes in the country coming out of high school in Georgia.
But he admits to being a bit nervous the first time he stepped onto the field at Williams-Brice Stadium in front of 80,000 screaming fans.
"It had me kinda shook," Williams said after practice Monday. "I was kinda nervous but once I got that first lick in and got that fist pass coming to me, I was like, 'I'm in the game, I'm here now, it's just regular football.'"
There was little that was regular about Williams' first season at South Carolina. The freshman from Dacula, Ga., who was rated the third-best cornerback in the nation by ESPN, made a quick impression for the Gamecocks. He had six tackles in the second game of the season at Missouri and his second-quarter interception set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Williams played in 11 games as a freshman, mostly at nickel, and made 38 tackles. He had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in being named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
Now, as a sophomore, Williams is expected to play an even bigger role. He has been moved to safety, the thinnest position on the team, in a secondary that faces big questions after the loss of three senior starters.
While the Gamecocks appear solid at corner with seniors Rashad Fenton, Keisean Nixon and grad transfer Nick Harvey, they have just one experienced player at safety. Senior Steven Montac has played in 21 games the past two years, mostly at safety, but there is little depth behind him.
Montac and Williams have been joined by J.T. Ibe, a grad transfer from Rice, redshirt freshmen Jaylin Dickerson and Tavyn Jackson and true freshman R.J. Roderick.
"It's a big concern," defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. "Obviously we don't have guys who have played a bunch of reps. … The only person we have with any kind of experience back there is Montac. We just have to do a good job of developing those guys and simplifying our plan, understanding that some of the things they can't do and figuring out what they can and cannot do."
Robinson and head coach Will Muschamp moved Williams to safety because of his speed and athleticism. He was considered one of the best all-around athletes in the country coming out of high school and showed his versatility as a freshman by playing both corner and nickel.
“He has really good instincts in man and zone," Muschamp said. "He has outstanding instincts. He has a tremendous work ethic. He is extremely bright and he works really well in everything that he does. … He can play in the deep part of the field, he can finish plays, he is a solid tackler, especially in the open field, and he is a good blitzer. He has a lot of traits that make him a good safety.”
Williams played safety in youth football but was a corner throughout high school. He says the experience as a freshman last season prepared him for the move.
"It definitely helped me with the speed of the game and it helped me to learn the concepts," he said. "Now that I've moved to safety, I know what everybody is doing now."
"He's doing well," Robinson said. "Obviously, he has some familiarity with what we are doing, so he kinda understands some of the different things that we ask them to do back there. But just little stuff, the nuances of the position, playing in the deep part of the field when the ball comes, he just don't have natural instincts at doing that because he hasn't done that. But he will continue to do better the more reps that he gets. The good thing he is he is out there working hard and trying to learn it, he's meeting extra."
Williams says his biggest challenge in training camp is working on his communication with Montac and the other safeties and making the right calls on each play. His communication skills is one reason he was moved to safety.
"He has improved his communications skills, and that has got to be critical for you in the safety position because we have to be locked in back there as far as the other safety is concerned and the nickel and the corners have to have a lot of communication with our linebackers," Muschamp said. "We put an awful amount on our Mike (linebacker) and both of our safeties and our defense from a communication standpoint. He has all the characteristics you need."
Williams hopes his new position puts him in position to create more turnovers. He showed a nose for the ball last year, intercepting two passes and recording a fumble. His interception against Florida sealed a 28-20 win.
"That's huge, that's a big part of our game every day," he said. "That's why we led the SEC in turnovers last year. That's the biggest part of our game. If we get the ball, the offense can't score."
Williams knows there is pressure on the secondary to perform this season after the loss of three seniors. He says the whole group has embraced the challenge.
"It definitely made us closer," he said. "We are a lot closer as a group."