MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonard met with reporters on Monday, he had to answer a question that always comes up this time of year.
“Who’s begging to separate themselves?”
Leonhard, trying hard not to leave anyone out, mentioned several players who’ve gotten significant reps this spring. Discussing the cornerbacks, Leonhard noted that “everyone has raised their level of play.” But perhaps nobody has stood out more than Amaun Williamsa preferred walk-on in 2020 who’s wrapping up another impressive camp.
“He’s probably been one of our most consistent playmakers on defense, which is really, really cool to see,” Leonhard said.
Williams beamed with pride on Wednesday when a reporter told him what one of his football idols said about him. Leonhard, a former walk-on himself, became a three-time All-American safety at UW in the early 2000s before a long career in the NFL. Knowing that type of success can be attained drives Williams, who’s hungry for his chance to crack UW’s rotation.
“He was a ball-hawk,” Williams said of Leonhard, who’s still tied atop the program record book with 21 interceptions. “I am a ball-hawk. Only time will tell if I will be as good as he was.”
Two weeks ago, cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said Williams led all cornerbacks in takeaways. That’s likely still true with just two spring practices remaining. Williams had arguably his best performance of the spring on April 14 when he had an interception and two pass breakups. During the April 5 session, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder had a pick-six off of backup quarterback chase wolf.
Each time Williams makes a play, everyone knows about it. Making interceptions, breaking up passes, or taking an offensive player down behind the line of scrimmage has become addicting for Williams. The more he makes plays, the more eager he becomes for the next one.
“It’s just a thing I am encouraged to do,” Williams said. “It’s energy. You know you have to bring that energy. If I make a play and everyone is quiet, I know I have to make another one to get everybody jumping.”
The playmaking part has always been there for Williams, who accumulated plenty of highlights during fall camp last season. The former unranked Milwaukee Riverside product feels he’s improved his understanding of the playbook and Wisconsin’s defensive scheme. That’s allowed him to play faster.
Though Williams has still taken some snaps on the outside, he’s mostly played the nickel corner position with the second-team defense this spring. It’s been a natural transition for Williams, who played safety in high school.
“Playing the slot is a mixture of both (corner and safety), so I feel like it fits me as a player and my skillset,” Williams said. “I think it was a great jump for me in the offseason.”
Williams said he set himself up for a strong spring while training in Florida over the winter. He worked out at Per4orm in Fort Lauderdale with his friend and former UW cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, who’s currently a member of the New York Jets. With a large group, which included Minnesota Vikings star running back Dalvin CookWilliams worked on his footwork, technique and other aspects of his game.
Williams said Wildgoose and Faion Hicks continue to help him improve. Hicks, who declared for the NFL Draft after five seasons at UW, calls Williams every week. They analyze film together.
“He surprised me with it,” Williams said. “He called me the first week and said, ‘You had a good practice.’ I was like, ‘Dang, you’re watching the film?’ He even knows about the new plays we put in. That just shows he’s still dedicated to the program. That’s something you need, having older guys who still watch you.”
Poteat’s group is one of the deepest on the roster, and Leonhard called the competition within it “amazing.”
With Hicks and Cesar Williams off to the draft and Dean Engram now playing wide receiver, transfers justin clark (Toledo), Jay Shaw (UCLA) and Cedrick Dort (Kentucky) figure to have significant roles. fifth-year senior alexander smith, UW’s only returning cornerback who’s played in more than 15 games, does too. Like Williams, redshirt freshmen Richard Hallman and Al Ashford have made strides.
Williams has embraced the competition.
“No matter who comes in or who’s here, I still feel like I am going to be able to show that I am a dog,” said Williams, who played 10 defensive snaps last season. “People are going to be able to see that I can play ball based on what I do on the field.
“…I just know I have to prove myself, and that’s something I do every day. I got a chip on my shoulder.”
Now in his third year with the program, Williams said, “I just want to get on the field. I feel like it’s time for me.”
And if he carries the momentum he built this spring into fall camp, it’ll be hard for Poteat and Leonhard to keep him off the field.
“All of my coaches tell me they notice me playing good,” he said. “But I feel like I can do more. Every day, there’s more I can do. They say I am good compared to the guys who are here. But I want to be good compared to the guys in the world.”