Williams bounced back after getting cut by first college team

When Mark Orphey was hired as Utah State’s cornerbacks coach last winter, he quickly discovered what a positive influence he had at his disposal in all-Mountain West performer DJ Williams.

“The biggest thing about DJ as a person is just his attitude and demeanor,” Orphey said. “He always ... brings joy to that (cornerback) room and that’s something you can never take for granted as a position coach.”

It’s fair to say that positive disposition has served Williams well in his life and has helped him bounce back from some adversity in an impressive way. After all, the current Aggie senior cornerback could have given up on football when he was cut from the University of Chattanooga following the 2016 campaign.

Williams spent two seasons with the Mocs, where he redshirted in 2015 and recorded eight tackles in 2016. The son of Dorian Williams and Rozani Jones played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but apparently it wasn’t enough to retain his spot on the team.

“I really didn’t get much of an explanation,” Williams said of being blindsided. “It wasn’t like (me getting into) trouble or anything, it was more like I guess I wasn’t playing like they wanted me to. I mean, I was only a freshman, but to be real with you I couldn’t even give you a direct answer for (why they cut me), honestly.”

It was an unexpected trial for Williams, who moved back to his hometown of Smyrna, Tennessee, and started working. Fortunately for Williams, he was presented with a chance to play at the junior college level. Williams was not even on the radar of coaches at Independence (Kansas) Community College when they went to his high school looking for another player. Williams’ high school coach influenced an Independence coach to give his former star player a shot, and he made the most of his opportunity.

“To be real, I didn’t know what I wanted to do (with my life),” Williams said. “I was just at home working and working out. ... I just knew I wanted to go play football somewhere, so I was thankful when I got that opportunity to go to Independence, for sure.”

Williams sparkled in his lone season with the Pirates as he racked up 56 tackles in 11 games, recorded a pair of sacks, broke up three passes, recovered two fumbles and forced another one. For his efforts, the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder earned first-team All-America honors.

Williams tallied a season-high nine tackles in his team’s 30-20 Midwest Classic Bowl victory over Northwestern Oklahoma A&M — the Pirates’ first triumph in a bowl in program history. The Pirates finished the year ranked fifth in the final JUCO rankings.

Not only did Williams show his mettle at Independence CC, he and his teammates received a lot of publicity. That’s because the Pirates’ football program was featured in the third and fourth seasons of Netflix’s award-winning docuseries, “Last Chance U.” Williams was a sophomore during the third season of the show.

“It was definitely fun,” Williams said. “I mean, I don’t know (the docuseries) was going to be there, but I think the best thing about that was playing with so many great players. I mean, I’ve got so many (former) teammates at different schools, from the FCS level to the FBS level, from Power 5s to the Group of 5s. I’ve got so many (former) teammates that are playing all around this country.”

Williams’ success certainly piqued the interest of several college coaches as he received more than 10 scholarship offers from Division I programs, including Mountain West teams Nevada and Hawaii.

Why did the former Smyrna High School standout ultimately choose USU?

“The main thing is I wanted to come play right away, and at the position I was at, there was a senior (Jalen Davis) leaving, so with that being said it was a good opportunity for me to come and compete right away,” Williams said. “... And also, when I came on my visit, it was really nice. The campus was nice, the facilities are nice and then the players were very cool.”

Not only did Williams play for the Aggies right away, he started all 13 games a year ago. In fact, the durable senior has been in the starting lineup in every contest since arriving in Cache Valley in the winter of 2018.

No. 7’s drive and tenacity, among other things, have allowed him to make an immediate impact at the FBS level.

“The thing I like about coaching him the most is — and I say this all of the time — is he’s a fierce competitor,” Orphey said. “I mean, he always wants to compete and always wants to win those one-on-one battles. But the thing that’s stood out to me the most is his hunger to want to get better, whether it’s talking route concepts, coverages. He always wants to learn and I think that’s huge, especially for a guy that’s a senior and has been doing this for a while, that he still knows that he has room for improvement.”

Williams garnered honorable mention all-Mountain West accolades in 2018 after tying for the top spot in the conference in interceptions (four) and finishing in a tie for the No. 3 position in passes defended (15). In fact, Williams ranked 30th nationally in passes defended. Williams, who broke up at least one pass in seven games, also contributed with 42 tackles, including 33 of the solo variety and 3.0 for a loss, and 1.0 sacks. He also forced a fumble against Tennessee Tech, a team that recruited him.

Additionally, Williams was selected as the Defensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl. He picked off a pair of passes in USU’s 52-13 drubbing of North Texas. Williams made an impressive, acrobatic diving INT against Hawaii and also showcased his athleticism in picking off a pass against New Mexico.

Williams has yet to record an interception this season, but ranks second on the team with six passes broken up and third in tackles with 59. No. 7 has been one of USU’s most consistent tacklers and has made several big plays in open space. Williams accumulated 11 solo stops in USU’s memorable road win over San Diego State and tallied a career-high 14 total tackles against Air Force — a game in which he recovered a fumble.

Orphey used the words “explosive” and “twitchy” when talking about Williams’ skillset, but the biggest think he appreciates is his senior’s “physical mindset.”

“I think it’s always important that you have corners that love to be physical and tackle, and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths.”

Williams, who has squared off against several NFL-caliber wide receivers in 2019, is coming off a solid performance in USU’s heart-stopping 37-35 triumph at Fresno State last Saturday. The senior made a pair of tackles for loss in the open field in the first half against a strong FSU rushing attack.

“Oh yeah, it definitely felt good,” Williams said when asked how good it felt to help the Aggies get back on track and show fans his team has plenty of fight left after back-to-back blowout loses. “I mean, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see some of the tweets. Coach A (Gary Andersen) tells us not to pay attention to (social media), but sometimes I’m just scrolling and I see them. You know, when you take a loss, there’s a lot of people that will say a lot of bad things about the team ... but it’s funny to see that right when you win, the same people are talking good about you.

“... But honestly, it just felt good to get back on (a winning note). Our goal is to win a Mountain West championship and right now, we can’t lose. You know, it’s do or die and that’s how we’re going to be playing every week.”

And while a Mountain West title is Williams’ primary focus right now, he does have long-term dreams of playing in the NFL. Coaching football is also something Williams, who is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology next month, aspires to try his hand at in the future.

Regardless of what the future brings, Williams will be prepared to tackle whatever challenges and opportunities that await him due to his deep-rooted faith in God and Jesus Christ. This is what helped Williams persevere after being cut by the Mocs.

“I was religious before then,” said Williams, whose favorite scripture is Jeremiah 29:11. “I grew up going to church. My family always brought me to church, but I feel like I started to really get into it even more after that situation (at Chattanooga).”

Williams recently conducted his first Fellowship of Christian Athletes lesson at Utah State, and he routinely shares scriptures and inspirational thoughts on social media.

“I mean, that’s what I do everything for,” Williams said. “That’s my main goal, just to share the gospel, so I really take a lot of pride in that.”

This level of devotion to his Christian faith has impressed and touched Orphey.

“I love that because I’m a man of faith myself,” Orphey said. “... Whether it’s reading the scriptures or reading his devotional, he’s very dedicated and that’s really important to him, and I think that’s awesome.”

In his free time, Williams enjoys going hiking, especially with girlfriend Kori Pentzer, who is a guard on Weber State’s women’s basketball team. The couple embarked on hiking trips to multiple national parks in southern Utah this past summer. Like Pentzer, Williams was an avid basketball player growing up.

“That’s what I really liked the most, honestly,” said Williams, who also ran track in high school. “And I wanted to go to college and play basketball and I got to my junior year, and I’m like, ‘I’m 5-9. I’m not getting no scholarships. That’s probably not going to happen,’ so yeah, that’s what made me focus more on football.”

Williams and Pentzer, who was a multiple-sport star at Melba (Idaho) High School, first meet on social media.

“I mean, that’s how people meet nowadays,” Williams said with a laugh.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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