Garrett Williams logged a play for his career highlight reel late in the second quarter of Syracuse football’s 47-21 loss to No. 1 Clemson on Saturday. The redshirt freshman cornerback snagged a tipped pass from Trevor Lawrence to Amari Rodgers and dashed up the left sideline before cutting back inside and walking into the end zone. The 39-yard pick-six pulled the Orange within seven points late in the second quarter and culminated in a touching moment as Williams pointed to his parents in the stands behind the end zone.
But it was a play Williams made on the Tigers’ prior possession that led trainer Rodney Nichols to swell with pride. It showcased Williams’ intelligence, technical improvements and poise all in a span of seconds. Lining up opposite Rodgers, Williams identified Clemson’s 12 personnel formation and knew what they liked to do with the space on the outside: scheme Rodgers open deep.
Nichols anticipated the play as well as a Rock Hill, S.C., native who also trains Tigers defensive back Derion Kendrick. And on the snap, Rodgers zipped past Williams. But the corner used an efficient transition out of the break to close ground, never turned his head through the flight of the pass as he finished recovering, and reached his right arm in to rip the ball out from Rodgers as the wideout rolled over trying to make the catch.
“That play was beautiful,” Nichols said. “If he was one step sooner out of his break, that was a pick. … That play right there is one not a lot of people highlight, but when you go back and look, it’s like, ‘That kid was smart.’ It’s easy to catch a pick-six nowadays with so much offense, but to recognize a formation, it takes a special defensive back to recognize that and key in on that.”
Through six games as a first-year starter, Williams has established himself as the next star in Syracuse’s secondary. He’s been a bright spot for the Orange (1-5, 1-4 ACC) midway through a disappointing season and appears primed to follow Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu as a major playmaker on the back end of the Orange’s 3-3-5 scheme.
Despite only switching to cornerback from quarterback as a junior at Hickory Ridge (Harrisburg, N.C.) High School, Garrett Williams beat out a cast of young, talented defensive backs for the fifth starting position this fall alongside a quartet of veterans. And, as those experienced upperclassmen — Cisco, Trill Williams and Eric Coley — have gone down to injury, Garrett Williams has filled the playmaking void. He’s logged five pass break-ups to go with his one interception as well as 37 tackles, the most among any of SU’s defensive backs. Heading into this weekend, Williams led the nation in targets without giving up a touchdown (30), per Pro Football Focus — and he shouldn’t be docked for either of Lawrence’s scoring strikes on Saturday.
Orange head coach Dino Babers was blown away by the athleticism Williams showed on his interception return, joking that “we may have a new punt returner.”
“He pushed that thing up the sideline and I thought he could’ve kept it there, but that’s the reason why I’m old and he’s young,” Babers quipped during his postgame presser. “He saw something, broke it to the right and then he walked in four or five yards with the ball, showcasing the ball. I’m sitting there going, ‘Wow. Here’s another young guy showing up.’ For him to make a play like that on a stage like this against a team like that, hopefully, he’s going to be around here for a long, long while.”
Both at Syracuse and back home in the Charlotte area, Williams has surrounded himself with top-tier defensive backs. After taking notes from Cisco — the All-American who recently declared for the 2021 NFL Draft — Trill Williams and Melifonwu as a team backup during his redshirt year, Williams began training with Nichols at the start of the summer. They worked out together three days per week, often in a group that included professionals such as Juston Burris of the Carolina Panthers and Tony McRae of the Detroit Lions.
Nichols taught Williams to “be a puppet,” keeping his elbows tight and his hips quick to allow for optimal turning speed, his eyes focused on the direction he was moving and his weight forward even while moving backward. Williams started to cut out some of his bad habits, like keeping his weight on his toes and an eye in the backfield as receivers approached the top of their route. The two broke down every rep from every session, often on Nichols’ phone directly afterward.
Over time, Williams’ improved technique started to mesh with his naturally smooth body mechanics. He started to remind Nichols of Stephon Gilmore, the New England Patriots corner who Nichols played with at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill. Both former quarterbacks late to the cover game. Both gifted with size and athleticism. Both ready to work hard enough to pair those abilities with technical skills.
“The sky is the limit for ‘G,’ man,” Nichols said. “I think he can be one of the best. … I think he can be a really high draft pick and help an organization at the next level.”
Williams returned to Central New York late this summer and built on his offseason development. He spent extra time working with Melifonwu before and after practice. He made sure first-year defensive coordinator Tony White, despite never seeing him in pads before the fall, knew that he deserved an opportunity. And, in taking advantage of that chance, he set himself up to be the next game-changing defensive back in Syracuse.
“I knew early on that I was going to be part of the mix because I knew how hard I worked leading into it,” Williams said after the Clemson game. “I didn’t know whether I’d be starting or not, but I knew I’d leave them no choice to have me in the game in some capacity.”