AUBURN, Ala. — It took only one practice for D’haquille Williams to make a lasting impression.
The consensus top-ranked junior college player in the country in the 2014 recruiting cycle, Williams stepped on the field with his new teammates at Auburn for the first time on March 18. Matched up against the most experienced member of the Tigers’ secondary — rising senior cornerback Jonathon Mincy, who has started 29 games the past three seasons — Williams more than held his own. And it wasn’t just the one-on-one aspect of the matchup where Williams excelled, Mincy said.
It was the game within the game: trash-talking.
“He’s a competitor,” Mincy said. “He’s going to talk, he’s going to get in your face and that’s something you want from your wide receivers.”
During that first practice, Williams also caught Jermaine Whitehead’s attention. Forget that Whitehead had never seen Williams play in-person before. The short time the senior safety saw the dynamic pass-catcher notwithstanding, Whitehead was certain Williams would be “a great player” from Day 1.
“He reminds me a lot of Sammie (Coates),” Whitehead said, referring to Auburn’s top receiver last season. “He can get vertical fast. He also likes to put his foot in the ground and make plays across the field.”
But the excitement over Williams’ arrival wasn’t limited to the players. Auburn’s coaching staff can’t wait to start drawing up plays for Williams this fall.
“You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him. He's got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he'll really add value to our wide receiving corps,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Right now, he's just getting acclimated to how we practice. It's a little different probably than he's ever experienced before, and he's done a great job. The best thing is he's had a great attitude. He's worked hard, he's bought in. He's blended in with his teammates great.”
Still, Lashlee tried to temper the expectations, wanting to keep them at a reasonable level. That’s why he declined to say where he envisioned Williams lining up next season.
“Right now, we put him in one spot. We put him in kind of our nine position and (are) just letting him get reps,” Lashlee said. “The way we've always worked is with new guys we've put them in one spot and once they get the offense down and they feel comfortable, then we either just say, ‘Hey, that's where they need to stay’ or we say, ‘That's a guy we can move around.’ He's playing more of that X boundary receiver, but we'll just see if he moves later on down the road.”
During his time at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Williams proved it didn’t matter where he was at on the field; if he got the ball in his hands, he was going to make a play. In his two seasons with MGCCC, Williams was a dominant force. As a freshman, he was named a JUCO All-American after hauling in 17 touchdowns and 1,295 receiving yards. His numbers dipped in his sophomore season in an injury-plagued campaign. Even so, he still was tops on the team in receptions (51), yards (733) and touchdowns (nine).
The Tigers hope Williams is able replicate that kind of success next season. And while Gus Malzahn didn’t outright say it, he implied that Auburn’s offense will look far different than the run-heavy attack that led Division I in rushing yards last year.
“If you look back, we’ve had years where we’ve thrown it a lot, and we are going to get more and more balanced next year,” Auburn’s coach said in December. “Any time you’ve got a dynamic guy like (Williams) coming, that’s a really good thing."
Malzahn’s confidence in the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Louisiana native has only continued to grow since the spring began, specifically highlighting some “very good” 1-on-1 plays he’s seen Williams make during practice.
“He's off to a good start as far as his ability to learn and effort and everything that (wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig and Coach Lashlee are asking him to do.”
Lashlee echoed that sentiment, saying Williams — who has not been available to the media this spring — has “done a really good job buying in” to the Tigers’ core practice tenets.
“A lot of times you get new guys, especially from junior college, they come in and they're not used to practicing like we practice,” he said. “Let's just call it like it is — we practice. It's really hard on our wide receivers. The way we go, the tempo, we never stop. It gets them in great shape for the game but he bought in from Day 1. All the little things we ask him to do, from the way we practice with tempo, run off the field, hand the ball to the official, all the little things. He's never once had one issue with attitude. He's always bought into what Coach Craig (and I are) asking him to do. I've been really pleased with him.”
So have his fellow receivers. Though there’s always friendly competition in every position group, each player wants to see the team as a whole improve. Just ask sophomore wideout Tony Stevens.
Williams — who teammates and coaches affectionately call “Duke — is exactly the type of electric talent to help the Tigers’ offense take the next step in 2014.
“Duke, he's a big body. You just give it to him, and he's going to go up there and get it,” Stevens said. “That's what we need in this offense — playmakers."