Fayetteville State star emerges among NFL draft hopefuls

INDIANAPOLIS — Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams recites Kyle Dugger’s story as if he wrote the book.

He tells how the late-blooming safety chose to play Division II football in a small town in North Carolina after receiving just three scholarship offers. And how Dugger went from an overlooked prep rookie to a second-round draft pick in just a few years.

As Williams watched Dugger’s trip less than 200 miles to Fayetteville, North Carolina, the budding cornerback figured he’d follow Dugger’s lead. Next week, it could become reality.

“He ended up in New England and is doing great things now,” Williams said at the NFL’s annual scouting meeting in March. “He went to the Senior Bowl like me, he went to the combine like me, and hopefully maybe I can follow in his footsteps and show my talents the same way he did.”

There are many similarities between Williams and Dugger.

Both have the long, lanky bodies that scouts look for in defensive backs, possess top speed and had to prove they could outrun the most familiar college big names.

Dugger convinced the Patriots he was good enough in 2020. Now it’s Williams’ turn.

NFL.com gives the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Williams a 6.18 rating — an above-average backup who could eventually become a starter — though it’s unclear where that puts him in the draft. next week.

Still, Williams has already achieved more than most expected.

The son of a track coach, he grew up in Fayetteville, a military town where nearly 20% of residents live in poverty. Locals follow basketball more than football and while Williams certainly looks like he’s been successful on the court, his dream has always been to play in the NFL.

So, after going from wide receiver to defensive back as a high school student, Williams went to a prep school in South Carolina for a season before returning home.

It is a 10 minute drive from the Fort Bragg military base to the Broncos campus. The 5,000-seat Luther “Nick” Jeralds Stadium seems more suited to hosting a big high school game than college stars. But it was that turf that helped Williams emerge as a legitimate draft prospect and perhaps the next big league star from a historically black college or university.

The list includes Hall of Famers such as the late Walter Payton of Jackson State, Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State and Donnie Shell of South Carolina State, as well as champions of the Super Bowl such as Tennessee State’s Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Doug Williams. of Grambling.

Last year, however, no players from HBCU schools were selected for the draft. The shutout prompted league officials to place more emphasis on those players at the Senior Bowl and the HBCU All-Star Game in New Orleans.

This year, four players have been selected: Williams, defensive backs Markquese Bell of Florida A&M and Decobie Durant of South Carolina State, and offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter of Southern. Everyone understands the long odds they overcame to get to this point and the even longer odds they face trying to replicate the success of Indianapolis Colts linebacker and South Carolina State grad Darius Leonard. , three-time All-Pro.

“Me and Darius, we always talk,” said Durant, a high school quarterback. “He talks about keeping your mindset and going in and having that dog mentality no matter the school, no matter the size, no matter the speed. Everyone always has something bad to say, so overcome the criticism.

Even after being noticed by league scouts, it wasn’t easy.

Durant traveled to the University of South Carolina for his pro day practice. Williams, who ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.53 seconds at Indianapolis, then found himself at North Carolina State where he drilled against top Wolfpack players. One of them, offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu, is one of the top five talents some of whom have considered becoming No. 1 overall. Williams didn’t flinch.

“I’m just grateful that they let me use their facilities,” he said.

This year’s roster of small-school talent doesn’t begin or end with HBCU prospects.

Offensive lineman Trevor Penning from northern Iowa and wide receiver Christian Watson from North Dakota State, two FCS schools, could be the first players. FCS offensive linemen Tyler Smith of Tulsa and Cole Strange of Chattanooga could make the second round.

South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong, Adam Vinatieri’s alma mater, impressed league decision-makers by completing the 40-yard sprint in 4.37 seconds at the combine. He tied Rutgers’ Isaih Pacheco for fastest time among running backs.

Then there’s Williams, who saw former college teammate Kion Smith sign with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted rookie last year. Williams knows it could happen to him too.

But after seeing Dugger’s plan, Williams believes he will become Fayetteville State’s first rookie since the New York Jets took on running back James Godwin in Round 16 in 1976.

“I want to put my best foot forward coming from Division II, a small school, showing what I have to offer, that there is no knock against D-II football,” he said. -he declares. “I want to show everyone that I’m just as talented, if not more talented, than those other guys.”

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