Football is Jonah Williams’ future. It is also the present for Alabama’s star left tackle.
But in his past, there was track and field. He was an elite thrower at Folsom High School in California.
One meet, he’d throw the shot 56 feet, 8 inches. Next time, he would throw it 60 feet, 8 inches. His best throw was 61 feet, 5 inches. The number left no doubt that he was getting better.
“I always enjoyed shot and disc because of that number,” Williams said.
It’s not so easy to quantify progress for an offensive lineman. There are no officially recorded statistics that measure the performance of an offensive lineman.
The numbers that do exist for linemen all place Williams in an elite category. He didn’t allow a single sack or a hit on the quarterback all through Alabama’s SEC schedule as a sophomore. He has started all 29 of Alabama’s games since he arrived on campus. He has blocked for 17 100-yard rushers in his career.
Williams projects as a likely top-10 pick in this year’s NFL draft if he chooses to leave school after his junior season. He could leave as the best offensive lineman at Alabama in the Nick Saban era.
“He’s going to have to do it this year, but he definitely has a chance,” SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic said. “I’d say he’s top five right now. You’re talking about (Chance) Warmack, (James) Carpenter, Barrett Jones, Cam Robinson. He’s better than Cam Robinson two years ago.”
All four of the others played in the NFL, and four are still on active rosters.
And even now, Williams is still searching for progress. There may not be a number attached to it, but he’s finding ways to get better.
Williams carries a notebook with him that includes three points of focus for that day on practice. Each day, he evaluates whether he improved in those areas.
“I’d be extremely bored at practice if I didn’t go out there with things to improve on,” he said. “I only feel like I’m having a good practice if I feel like I’ve improved on those things by the end.”
Some of the numbers aren’t so easy to evaluate for an offensive lineman. It takes all five to block, as well as the right execution from the skill players, to make sure a play unfolds as it should. There is a grading system for linemen to evaluate how they play individually, though. That number isn’t always a perfect representation of a performance overall, but it gets close. Linemen receive one grade for whether they block their assignment and another grade for how well they block their assignment.
Williams dominates those numbers as well: His goal is to receive a 100 percent grade for his assignments each game, and he finished last season with a 98.6 percent grade. He missed 10 assignments and had two mental errors in 831 total snaps. His overall grade of 86.7 percent was also an elite number.
He has been keeping track of his grades dating even back to high school. He arrived at Folsom High midway through the school year, then won a starting job as a junior in 2014. He was knocked out for five weeks of that season with a minor fracture in his leg. Even when he wasn’t playing, he’d spend Saturdays with his head coach breaking down film. They watched his replacement and evaluated his footwork, hand placement and calls so Williams could still find a way to improve.
“When he came back, he didn’t want to be the weak link from a mental standpoint,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said. “Those are the things Jonah loves to do.”
He kept it going even when he was a senior, too. The tape might be prepared by 1:30 in the morning after a Friday night game. Williams was the first one to check it.
“I would wake up on Saturday after the game and Jonah would already have broken down and sent me the play numbers where he took the incorrect steps or had bad hand placement,” Richardson said. “It really challenged me as a coach, because I didn’t want to let that kid down.”
There was no senior season in track and field for Williams. He enrolled early at Alabama and wasn’t in high school that spring. His personal record of 61 feet, 5 inches in the 12-pound shot put and 171 feet, 2.25 inches in the discus from his junior season were his best marks. His shot put throw would have won the state championship in Alabama by more than seven feet. His discus record would have won the state championship by 10 feet.
Both marks were school records for Folsom. In California, he ranked in the top 10 in the state as a sophomore and was No. 6 as a junior. His high school track and field coach, Steve Kinoshita, said he probably would have been the state’s best thrower if he had competed as a senior. Ivy league schools were interested in Williams, but it was clear by that point that he had an NFL future.
“This is why I wish a lot more athletes like Jonah who played offensive line would come out for track and field for throws,” Kinoshita said. “It requires a lot of balance and even speed and technique, especially when you look at discus. A lot of footwork. Instantaneously, I could tell Jonah was an exceptional athlete just based on what he was doing with minimal training. … His footwork, with minimal preparation, compared to what I’d seen with other throwers. That balance was very important. He had a great center of gravity and great, quick footwork which really helped him, aside from his exceptional strength.”
The same physical qualities that made him an exceptional thrower were also apparent on the football field. Strength and explosiveness are requisite for elite throwers, and also helped Williams overpower defenders at the point of attack. His quick feet help him rotate to make throws, but also to swing outside and reach the second level as a blocker.
His balance and body control were also rare. Those qualities never went away even as he grew from 250 pounds as a high school sophomore to a 300-pound left tackle. Athleticism in a 300-pounder isn’t easy to see, but Williams can still dunk a basketball.
“He’ll get in tough spots during a one-on-one rep or something like that and he’ll just find his way out of it just because of his balance and athleticism,” Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher said. “Stuff that you know is like God-given, where you need to thank God for that rep right there, whatever happened. Stuff that normal guys can’t do.”
There was also the mental side of preparation. Football practice often conflicted with track and field practice at Folsom, leaving Williams to practice his throws on his own. Kinoshita and his assistants would help with his technique but Williams put in plenty of work on his own. Accountability was never a question.
It was the same for football, his primary focus. Williams didn’t entertain distractions; he never attended a camp to be evaluated by recruiting analysts or played seven-on-seven. He had the opportunity to play in a high school all-star game before enrolling at Alabama but turned it down. Williams thought the chance to participate in Alabama’s practice leading up to the national championship game was more important.
“I didn’t feel like any coach was going to give me a job because of my performance in an all-star game,” he said. “I didn’t really care about neon cleats.”
That was part of the culture at Folsom. Richardson called it “The Bulldog Way.” When he arrived in Tuscaloosa, “The Process” was already part of Williams’ mind-set.
“When I talked to guys when he first got there, he was somebody who consistently asked questions,” Cubelic said. “He was somebody who asked to be picked on and judged, picked apart a little bit as far as ‘What am I doing wrong? How can I get better?’ He came in with the mind-set of ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to play.’”
He got the starting job but kept the mind-set. He has a Twitter account, but has tweeted three times in more than four years. He picked up cooking as a hobby to help him maintain a healthy playing weight. He has earned academic honors at Alabama as well.
But mostly, he keeps trying to find ways to get better.
“A lot of times when the coaches have a meeting, they always start with the good things,” Williams said. “They’ll say, ‘Guys, I think we had a good game, we did a good job of doing this.’ And I’m just glazed over. Then they’ll go, ‘But these are the things…’ and that’s when I lock back in. I think that’s just part of that pursuit. I don’t write three things in my notebook that I did a good job of.”
Saban said Williams is “really a perfectionist.” He sees the attention to detail his left tackle has and how it has helped him.
Improvement at this point for Williams requires meticulousness. Cubelic said Williams might be able to improve his flexibility a touch or to widen his base at times in run blocking, but even those critiques are nitpicks. He hasn’t posted a single transcendent game, but he’s also never had an awful showing in two-plus seasons.
“There’s a good chance he’s the best tackle in college football right now,” Cubelic said.
It’s hard to improve on that. It’s even harder when there isn’t always a number attached to it.
Williams keeps finding ways to get better, even when it isn’t easy to see. Football might not have the numbers that can show how far he has come. But the sport has other qualities that are all its own.
“The shot put doesn’t remember what it felt like when you threw it,” Williams said. “You can make someone remember what it feels like when you hit them.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.