Most "tweener" defensive end prospects have to learn how to rush the passer from a standing position once they are drafted. In this case, their floor is harder to project. Some athletes take to the 3-4 OLB position quickly and become feared pass rushing menaces, while others are too tight in the hips and are unable to convert, ending up as busts.
The Ohio State Buckeyes, for all of the team's successes on the college gridiron, has not been particularly stellar at converting players to the 3-4 defense. Vernon Gholston, who was a feared defensive end during his time in Columbus, is still trying to learn how to run the arc in New York. Bobby Carpenter is another high profile bust. However, this year, another young Buckeye seems to be ready to take the plunge as a 3-4 OLB by taking the road less traveled...as a stand-up specialist.
His name? Nathan Williams. And he is hungry to break this curse.
Nathan Williams is a 6 foot 3, 260 pound junior. He came to Columbus as a defensive end, capable of putting his hand down in the dirt and getting after the passer. However, as time went on, he realized that he would need to compensate for his small stature to have a future, both on the collegiate and the professional levels. So, he taught himself how to stand up and play in a hybrid set.
Last season, Williams had 26 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in a backup role. He played both with his hand down on the ground and standing up, showing a solid acumen in both areas. Despite having some injury trouble, Williams seems to have maintained his burst and overall solid play coming into this offseason. He got his first action of this year against the Miami Hurricanes, and played very well.
Williams immediately made an impact, as the first time he got on the field he intercepted a Jacory Harris pass and returned it 22 yards to set up a field goal. On the play, Williams stayed back in coverage and made the play on the ball while maintaining a solid zone coverage. He looked pretty comfortable turning his hips as well, and was reminiscent of Mike Vrabel in terms of his coverage skills.
Throughout the game, Williams was able to push the pocket backwards, both with his hand in the ground and standing up. He also was part of a stellar Ohio State rush defense that, sans one long run from Damien Berry, held the Canes to 78 yards on the ground. Overall, it was a strong game for Williams.
This may be a bit of a controversial stance, but I think that Williams should come out for the draft this year. Despite not being a starter, Williams would be extremely valuable for many NFL teams, and I do not think that his back-up status would affect his draft stock. Similarly to Clay Matthews III, who also did not start for USC before he became a prime draft prospect, Williams has the measurables and the value for 3-4 teams to warrant a late first round pick in this year's draft. He has the blend of cover skills, smarts and pass rush ability to instantly make an impact for many NFL teams. I have already mentioned the Vrabel comparison, and it holds very true for Williams. Other than Robert Quinn and possibly helium guys Cliff Matthews and Greg Romeus, I do not think there is a more complete 3-4 outside linebacker who would be available in this draft. And, remember, Williams is the only one of this group to have extended experience at the position.
At the end of the day, Williams could be a star at the next level by taking the path less traveled. By making a premature transition to pass-rushing OLB, he can be what Gholston and Carpenter were not. Hopefully, he does not mortgage his NFL future for collegiate glory.