By Kyle LoJacono
Shadow Williams is the kind of football player that gets attention fast.
His teammates quickly see him as a defensive playmaker, his opposition swiftly learns the power and speed he possesses and his coaches are fast to learn the difference he can make on any team.
Williams’ transition to college ball has been as speedy, as the former Land O’ Lakes and Freedom player has risen to No. 2 at middle linebacker on the defensive depth chart at the University of Arizona as a freshman walk-on.
“The first time I saw him I liked him,” said Wildcats defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel. “He’s got a lot of energy and has a nose for the ball. He’s very physical. … We gave him the opportunity for a few days and he showed he has some ability. He can develop into a good football player. Like any freshman, he has to get bigger and stronger, but he’s working. He’s a tough kid, and you’re always going to find a place for kids like that.”
Williams, who is studying sports management, is also starting on Arizona’s kickoff and kick-return teams.
He played for Land O’ Lakes as a junior and senior, where he compiled 195 tackles, 14 sacks, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. While at Freedom in 2009, Williams posted 89 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles.
Williams said his dream was to play college football from the day he took to the gridiron at age 5 with the South Tampa Boys and Girls Club.
“I knew I could play Division I football if I was given the opportunity,” Williams said.
The opportunity didn’t appear to be there a few months ago. Williams originally signed with Phoenix Community College and had offers from North Carolina Central and Bethune-Cookman universities.
Williams said he and his parents, Cliff and Nichole, were looking for a bigger program when the 6-foot, 226-pounder reconnected with a former coach.
Frank Davis, the strength and conditioning coach at Arizona, was an assistant at Freedom when Williams transferred to the New Tampa school as a sophomore and they kept in touch after returning to Land O’ Lakes.
“He told me I could come here and if I worked hard I might get a scholarship,” Williams said. “He always motivated me in high school, so that was a big push for me to come out here to see if I could get a scholarship.”
Williams lived in Arizona for three years with his family while in middle school.
“I kind of latched on to the University of Arizona when I was out here,” Williams said. “There was University of Arizona and (Arizona State University), but I really liked Arizona from the start.”
The Wildcats defense was also something Williams was used to. Arizona uses a 3-3-5 stack, three linemen and linebackers with five defensive backs, but the complexity of the system was beyond anything he’d been a part of.
“The biggest thing is the speed and the knowledge of the game,” Williams said. “Everything happens a lot faster. In high school we had a couple plays. In college we add in two or three plays a day.”
Williams said he was expecting to get some playing time on special teams this year and maybe get into some games at linebacker.
“After awhile you start to get used to it and catch up to the speed,” Williams said. “I guess I just caught on quick, plus I had a chip on my shoulder because I thought I could earn a scholarship but had to walk on. The coaches started liking me when I started making plays, and I started getting time at first team in practice.”
Casteel said one of Williams’ strengths is a desire to learn and get better.
“They did a great job with him at his high school, turning him into a pretty good football player,” Casteel said. “Hopefully he’ll end up with a good career here. He has a bright future.”
Williams said the coaches will discuss scholarships for next year at the end of the season, but he isn’t worrying about that right now.
“I just want to go out there and be a playmaker,” Williams said. “I want to go out there and make a name for myself and show I have what it takes to be a player for a big-time team.”