Like many talented young athletes, Joshua Williams wrote down a list of goals for himself as he prepared for his senior season on the Fayetteville State football team.
And he set the bar high.
Among the items on his list were leading his team to a championship, earning an invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, and getting selected in the NFL Draft.
“At the time, they seemed like really ambitious goals for me,” Williams said. “But they say to set your goals high.”
It’s one thing to reach for the stars. Actually getting there is considerably more difficult, especially for a player at a Division II school.
But the 6-foot-3, 197-pound cornerback has defied the odds. After helping the Broncos to the championship of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s Southern Division, he checked off another of his boxes by becoming the first player in school history to be invited to the Senior Bowl.
Williams, who will play for the National team coached by the staff of the New York Jets, is one of three players from state schools in Mobile, Alabama, preparing to play in the most prestigious of the postseason college all-star games.
Joining him on the opposing American team, coached by the staff of the Detroit Lions, are UNC quarterback Sam Howell and Appalachian State linebacker D’Marco Jackson.
Although the game itself will be played on Saturday at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of South Alabama, the most important aspect of the event — especially for relative unknowns such as Williams — are the practice sessions leading up to it.
Coaches, scouts and general managers from every NFL team will be on hand to watch and evaluate prospects in advance of this year’s draft. A strong performance can lead to a spot at next month’s Combine and then, perhaps, an opportunity to play professionally.
“It’s always been on my mind how big of a deal this is, but once you prepare to a certain point, there’s nothing else you can do but go out there and play your best,” said Williams, who arrived in Alabama on Monday. “That’s why I’m not nervous but more anxious to get out there and showcase the work that I’ve been putting in.”
Despite playing for a small school that hasn’t had a player drafted since running back James Godwin was taken by the Jets in the 16th round in 1976, Williams hasn’t exactly been flying under the radar with the NFL scouts.
He first began attracting attention just before the COVID pandemic began tightening its grip in 2020 while representatives of several teams were on campus looking at offensive tackle Kion Smith — who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons and is currently a member of the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad.
“We had two scouts that came and did measurables on our rising juniors and seniors, and when they spread (Williams’) arms out and saw his wingspan, they were like ‘Oh my God,’” Fayetteville State coach Richard Hayes Jr. said. “From that day on, he just took off. We had all 32 teams here this football season.”
Williams has backed up his measurables with his play for the Broncos.
A lockdown corner routinely assigned to cover the opposition’s best receiver, he recorded 32 tackles, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups as a junior in 2019. After a year off because of the CIAA’s decision to cancel the 2020 season, he had 32 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2021.
He returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown against Elizabeth City State while leading Fayetteville State to an 8-2 record (7-0 CIAA) and a spot in the conference championship game against Bowie State.
Williams’ draft profile on NFL.com describes him as a “long-limbed defensive back (who) immediately stands out on film as a dominant presence, with great size and excellent feet and fluidity.”
His college coach breaks it down in more basic terms.
“First of all, Josh is a really good kid,” Hayes said. “And it really helps that he’s 6-3, he’s 197 pounds, he has corner ability and he can freaking fly.”
For all the attention he’s attracting now, Williams was an afterthought to college recruiters when he came out of Fayetteville’s Jack Britt High School. Even after a year at Palmetto Prep in Columbia, South Carolina, his best offer was back home at Fayetteville State.
Hayes said that while he liked Williams’ potential from the start, his meteoric rise as an NFL prospect has come as a surprise.
Williams, on the other hand, knew he had it in him all along.
“Since I was a little kid, I always thought I would play in the NFL,” he said. “When I got to Fayetteville State, I had it planned out. I was just going to come here and dominate.
“I honestly didn’t even think I’d be this highly touted. I was thinking I might have to do some kind of workouts for some teams, maybe after the draft, work my way through the practice squad. But I always knew I would get there somehow because I believe in my skill set and the talent I have. I can cover, I work hard, I just keep my head down and do what I can do.”