ATHENS, Ga. — Shawn Williams might have been expecting to hear it. But it still hurt when his coach said it.
It was just after spring practice, and Williams, a safety on the Georgia football team, was having his post-spring exit interview with secondary coach Scott Lakatos. The sophomore might have been hoping to impress Lakatos, who had just been hired, but instead the feedback was negative.
“Coach Lakatos told him where he was at that time,” head coach Mark Richt said. “It wasn’t what (Williams) wanted to hear. He wasn’t as high on the depth chart as he wanted to be or maybe thought he could be. He had a choice: He could’ve moped around or felt sorry for himself, or he could’ve worked. He did the latter.”
As a result, more than halfway through the season, Williams is a starter at free safety. And his play is part of the reason the Bulldogs have improved their pass defense by cutting down on big plays.
“I just started working harder and harder, and I guess it just paid off,” Williams said. “Always knowing what to do, and playing hard, coaches see that.”
The disappointment of not being a starter after the spring hardly compared to the heartache Williams dealt with a few months later. In July, his family’s home in Early County in southwest Georgia burned down, with all their possessions inside it.
Williams, who was in Athens when it happened, said his family members kept him updated. They have moved into a new house in the same spot.
“We got a bunch of help,” Williams said. “It really helped us get back to where we needed to be.”
The school helped, with what it could through NCAA rules, even posting an announcement on the scoreboard before home games.
“I think that’s been good medicine for him and for his family to see him get in and play maybe more than they thought he would be coming out of spring ball,” Richt said.
Williams said he doesn’t remember being surprised at that exit interview. He did take to heart Lakatos’ criticism and suggestions on what he needed to work on — specifically what Lakatos called “eye discipline.”
“Having eyes on the right key and not being faked off by something, looking off somewhere else, not being where you need to be,” Williams said. “That’s what I needed to improve on, and that’s what I did.”
According to Lakatos, the main improvement made by Williams was his knowledge of the system and “what was expected of him.” Some technique improvement too.
“That’s the biggest thing. You play hard, and you know the formula, you’re going to play well,” Lakatos said.
Williams has done just that, according to Richt.
“Some guys, they think somehow they think somebody owes them something. And when they don’t get their way, they tend to mope or feel sorry for themselves,” Richt said. “But the best thing he could do, if something like that happens, is work hard and compete, and that’s what he’s done.”