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Williams: From JUCO ranks to NFL?

From the junior college ranks to the National Football League would be one heck of a jump.

D'haquille Williams in action at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College wide receiver D’haquille Williams would be eligible to make such a leap after this upcoming season. But all indications are that Williams will likely spend at least one year at a four-year college. And he has several top schools after him to do at least that. In fact, he just committed and de-committed from LSU in the span of the last month.

The 6-3, 210-pound Williams is a native of Reserve, La., located just 20 miles west of New Orleans. His story has taken a number of twists and turns over the years. When he failed to pass a required state exam to move out of the eighth grade, he transferred to a nearby private school for his ninth and 10th grade years.

He made that move so he could be eligible to play basketball. But that school, Liberty Christian Academy in LaPlace, La., was not accredited. Williams discovered that when he tried to transfer to East St. John High School in Reserve for his junior year.

“I went to a private school for basketball and it was not accredited,” Williams said. “I found that out when I tried to transfer over to a public school.”

At East St. John, he took up football as a junior and became a star receiver. But he knew already he would not be able to attend a four-year college after high school because he had not transferable credits from his two years at LCA.

“I was mad, but I knew the route I had to take,” Williams said. “I was ready for the grind.”

He played two years (2009-10) at East St. John and then sat out the fall of 2011 as he mulled his options. He picked up where he left off on the gridiron this past fall at Mississippi Gulf Coast and is working toward a second season there this fall.

But because he sat out in 2011, Williams would be three years removed from high school and eligible for the NFL draft next spring. He declined to talk about that option. His Gulf Coast CC coach Steve Campbell said it is not something that Williams has discussed or is dwelling upon.

Williams caught 67 passes for 1,295 yards and 17 TDs last season at MGCCC

“I have not talked to him about it,” Campbell said. “Our goal is for him to graduate from here so he has other options. A great option would be for him to finish his education and then go on and play (professionally) from there.

“He needs to focus on what he has to do on a daily basis. He doesn’t need to worry about that. That is way off in the future. Let’s focus on the classwork and getting better today … he has all the ability in the world. He just needs to take it one step at a time.”

The Long and Winding Road

As noted, basketball was originally Williams’ primary sport. He picked up football when he arrived at East St. John as a junior in 2009 and was an instant hit.

In his first season ever in football, Williams caught 44 passes for 1,161 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was a Class 5A all-state pick. He was the same a year later, when he averaged nearly 30 yards a catch.

But after graduating in 2011, Williams sat out of football that fall.

“I wasn’t really mature enough to enter college,” he said.

Even though he was not immediately eligible, LSU had offered Williams a spot once he got his academic house in order. MGCCC’s Campbell said he and his coaches had learned of Williams’ plight and they went in with a plan to help him earn his eligibility to attend a major college.

Williams pictured during a college visit

“One of our coaches had heard about a great player down there in Louisiana and we started to recruit him. All the high school coaches in the state said the best player down there was at East St. John. We got on him and started recruiting him. Then the LSU guys went in there and said, ‘Hey, he’s the real deal and we’d love to have him.’ ”

Williams got to Mississippi Gulf Coast in January 2012 and went to work right away. Last fall, he earned junior college All-American honors as he caught 67 passes for 1,295 yards and 17 touchdowns. MGCCC went 9-2 and ended the season ranked sixth nationally.

“He came in and fit in really well,” Campbell said. “We had lost a first-team All-American from the year before, Javon Bell, who signed with Texas Tech. Javon had scored 16 touchdowns and had over 1,000 yards receiving. He graduated and we needed another big play guy. D’haquille stepped right in and had a tremendous year.”

Campbell talked about the traits that set Williams apart.

“He is a big, strong and physical receiver who definitely has deep threat speed,” he said. “He is a great deep ball guy. He runs great routes. He can catch the ball underneath and get yards after the catch. He’s got all the skill set a receiver needs. He can run after the catch and he has outstanding speed for a big kid.”

Campbell has spent nine years as the coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast. He and his staff have sent a number of players on to four-year colleges. Their success stories include running back Vick Ballard (Mississippi State, now with Indianapolis Colts), Terrence Cody (Alabama, now with Baltimore Ravens), defensive back Tramaine Brock (San Francisco 49ers) and defensive tackle John Jenkins (All-SEC at Georgia this past year, drafted by New Orleans Saints).

“We’ve had guys who have played in the Sugar Bowl five of the last six years,” Campbell said. “We had 13 guys in NFL camps last year and could have 16 this year.”

There have been any number of other recent junior college success stories, including former Auburn star and 2010 Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley and former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount.

“It’s the perseverance and staying after it and not giving up on your dream,” Campbell said of JUCO players who go on to major college or NFL success. “You have to work hard and follow the process. That’s going to class, working hard in the weight room and take care of your business off the field. There is no reason he can’t be successful. There are a lot of guys who have gone that route.

“It’s not that uncommon of a route any more. Sometimes, it’s the path less traveled. Hopefully, it takes a special person to travel that route and if you have, you’ve been through some stuff that will prepare you to be successful at the next level.”

For his part, Williams believes his breakout season at Mississippi Gulf Coast was a product of his hard work.

“I think I showed how much I love the game,” he said. “From the off-season and the summer workouts, that just made me grind more. That showed me that we have a great coach and he was telling us the right things. We just had to follow what he said.”

Asked what he showed last fall, Williams said, “My attitude on the field. That sets me apart. That separates my game from everybody else’s game. If the ball is in the air, I know I have to come down with it and not the defender.”

Possible Destinations

According to Campbell, his star Williams is on track to complete his two-year degree there this fall. That would allow him to move on to the college of his choice.

“He is in good shape academically,” Campbell said. “If he can continue to do what he has done, he should be in position to leave here at Christmastime and enroll (at a four-year school).”

LSU has been the school most closely associated with Williams. He verbaled to LSU on May 15, only to reconsider and de-commit on June 5.

“They are still in the running, but they aren’t showing me much interest,” Williams said of LSU. “They think they will just come in at the end and I will commit. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s a business. When I mean business, you have to work your way in with that player and get to know him and his family and his friends. They haven’t done that yet.”

Other schools that have been involved with Williams include Auburn, Texas A&M, Texas and Alabama. Here were his comments on those schools:

On Auburn -- “That will be one of my official visit schools. Their coaching staff is good and I liked the environment and the way they treated me when I was at their spring game. They treat you like you are one of them.”

On Texas -- “I have been talking to (assistant coach Bo) Davis. He will tell you what’s real and what’s right from wrong. I like Texas and I wouldn’t mind playing under Mack Brown.”

On Texas A&M -- “They have a great school and they are very good. I wouldn’t mind playing at Texas A&M. One of my high school teammates (Floyd Raven) is there. Plus, they have a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) at quarterback, so I know he would find a way to get me the ball.”

On Alabama -- “Alabama offered, but it’s a run school. They have four or five running backs and then when they do throw the ball they throw it to one receiver.”

Williams, who boasts 4.4-second speed in the 40 and a 37-inch vertical jump, was asked what fans of those schools can expect if he signs with their school.

“It’s just my motivation for the game,” Williams said. “I want to show people what I can do and my love for the game. When I step on the field, all of my problems will be solved on that field, on that day and on that night.”

With so much out there for him, one might think Williams is simply biding his time until the big-time beckons.

“I’m not really trying to count the days down here at Gulf Coast,” he said. “I am just trying to enjoy it and spend time with my teammates. This may be the last time I see some of them. I’m taking it one day at a time and trying to get to know my teammates. When that time comes (to leave), then that time will come.”

And, while a direct jump from the junior college ranks to the NFL draft is possible, his coach reiterated that it seems – at best – to be improbable.

“D’haquille has always said he is focused on getting better today,” Coach Campbell said. “He has told me he is not worried about things down the road. He has always said he wants to be the best player he can be today.”

Click here for a special video feature on Williams.

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