By Marc Weiszer
In the last five weeks, as No. 4 Georgia picked up steam en route to Saturday’s SEC championship showdown with Alabama, quarterback Jake Fromm has been as well-protected as a bubble-wrapped present delivered for the holidays.
After getting sacked three times in a blowout loss at LSU, opposing defenses have sacked him just once and none in the last four games.
Now comes finding a way to slow down Crimson Tide nose guard Quinnen Williams, “the ultimate challenge,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
“He’s extremely quick, extremely athletic,” Smart said. “He uses his leverage well. He’s powerful.”
It’s a tough assignment primarily for Georgia senior center Lamont Gaillard as well as guards Solomon Kindley and Tray Hill (if injuries keep Ben Cleveland and Cade Mays on the sideline).
“I’m not going to give any offensive line an advantage playing against him, he’s just had that kind of a year,” said SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic. “He’s been completely destructive, seemingly unstoppable and a guy who can utilize a pretty elite combination of quickness and power. They’re going to have their hands full.”
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Williams’ pro stock has jumped to the sixth-rated player for the 2018 NFL draft on ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s rankings.
The redshirt sophomore has 5.5 of his seven sacks the past four games, third most in the nation during that stretch, according to CFBstats.com, and leads No. 1 Alabama this season with 11 quarterback hurries and 16 tackles for loss, second most in the SEC.
“We didn’t do a good job game-planning for him, we didn’t block him,” said Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who worked with Williams last season as defensive coordinator at Alabama. “I think Quinnen is highly motivated. He’s a really good competitor. He’s instinctive. He studies the game and he plays hard. He can rush the quarterback, he can play the run. He’s hard to block.”
No wonder he’s a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award for nation’s best defensive player and Outland Trophy for top interior lineman.
“He’s a really, really good player,” Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield said. “We’ll definitely have to game plan for him.”
Williams, third on Alabama with 58 tackles, does most of his damage lined up over the center and guards.
“They do a great job of rushing the front of the pocket,” Fromm said. “It is what it is. My feet have to be quicker.”
Georgia also will have to contend with defensive end Isaiah Buggs (9.5 sacks), who may be slowed after sustaining a hyperextended knee against Auburn, and linebacker Christian Miler (7.5 sacks). Defensive end Raekwon Davis had a sack and interception against Georgia in the national title game.
Williams played in Alabama’s 26-23 overtime win last season against Georgia, but not much. He had two tackles during a season in which he had 20 tackles, including six and a half for loss as a backup.
Even in week three in the SEC opener this year, he wasn’t a focal point of Ole Miss’ scouting report.
“You didn’t know much about him coming into the game because he was kind of in the background,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “After watching the tape, I was very, very impressed with him, definitely one of the top D-linemen we’ve faced.”
Williams recorded Alabama’s first safety since 2015 against Missouri and two games later racked up 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks at LSU.
“I’ve been trying to do my part, do what I’m supposed to do for the defense; just execute to my abilities,” he said.
He’s studied Gaillard on film and says he’s impressed with “just the way he comes off the ball, the strength that he has in the run game, and just the overall smartness that he has.”
He’ll have to use those smarts to counterbalance Williams.
“Biggest thing is being fundamentally sound, have a good pad level, and being able to put ourselves in positive situations in the right plays,” Smart said. “You’ve got to do a good job mixing things up. You’ve got to stay balanced, and you’ve got to stay consistent with it.”