TUSCALOOSA _ Jesse Williams can be more than forgiven for being a little distracted this past week. Granted, he's still making the adjustment to being a full-time student and football player at the University of Alabama, and Wednesday got to experience the craziness of National Signing Day up close and personal. But otherwise his attention was elsewhere.
Williams, Alabama's first player from Australia, was frequently texting and checking news reports from home, where Tropical Cyclone Yasi (Down Under's version of a hurricane) made landfall close to his hometown in northern Queensland. With winds exceeding 125 mph it tore through the region already decimated by January floods that cost billions in damage.
"When I was there they actually closed the airport the day after I left," Williams said. "It was pretty much raining my entire trip back. I'm from Brisbane, that's where my family is and that's pretty much where the flood hit. I know my friends and family were affected by it, but everyone's okay and now it's just a big cleanup at the moment."
Otherwise, the new nose tackle seems to be really enjoying the Capstone so far.
Even though the Crimson Tide may still land a couple more huge prospects for the Class of 2011, none may be bigger, literally or figuratively, than Williams, who at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds could potentially bring a Terrence Cody-type presence to the defensive line.
Although he starting picking up the game at the age of 15 while at Cavendish Road State High School and played for local clubs, the Bayside Ravens and Queensland Sun Devils, Williams spent the past two years at Arizona Community College. Rated the No. 2 junior-college prospect in the nation by Rivals, he played seven games last season, with 30 tackles including six for a loss and two sacks while his team allowed just 48.64 rushing yards per game despite his missing roughly half the season due to some lingering knee trouble.
"Everyone went after me," Williams said about how he was played differently once news broke that he was being recruited by Alabama. "I was getting double-teamed and I was getting chopped every game. I've gotten used to it, but not really a small guy. I should be able to handle that."
Williams, who added that his knee is fine now, was one of six defensive lineman the Crimson Tide signed, with fellow junior-college transfer Quinton Dial, grayshirt Wilson Love and incoming freshmen LeMichael Fanning, D.J. Pettway and Jeoffrey Pagan. Saban also hired Chris Rumph to run the unit that has only lost Marcell Dareus and Luther Davis.
"One of the goals in recruiting was to get more athletic up front on defense, more guys who can pass rush, more guys that could move and push the pocket in the middle and affect the quarterback," Coach Nick Saban said, adding specifically about Williams: "We think he is a guy with the possibility of helping us immediately and are certainly looking forward to his development this spring."
Williams has already begun his crash course to learn the scheme, having played in a 4-3 base for the Matadors that would switch to a 3-4 in passing situations, and getting down the playbook. Three weeks into workouts and conditioning on the Capstone, though, his adjustments are only just beginning, not just in football, but, well, everything.
Beyond technique and adopting the mindset that comes with of playing in the Southeastern Conference, there's also adapting to his surroundings. Williams hasn't had a chance to try local barbeque yet, he's not real big on sweet tea and the various accents can be challenging. He isn't even comfortable with "y'all" yet.
"I'm not trying to blend in at the moment," Williams said.
Actually, that may be impossible. In addition to his wide girth, Williams' powerful legs, arms and chests are covered in tattoos of inspirational speeches, tribal inscriptions, numbers, things that are important to him.
Consequently, he's already becoming a bit of a campus celebrity with just about everyone he passes offering a hello or "Roll Tide."
"Culturally, there are lots of differences, even going Arizona to Alabama," he explained. "I know people on the West Coast are a little different than people down South. I've definitely experienced a little of the Southern hospitality and I think everyone's a little nicer here than on the West Coast.
"That's the main thing, how people act."
When he meets people who don't know about him yet, which is already becoming increasingly rarer, just his voice can cause them to say, "You're not from around here, are you?" Williams laughs about that, and has to, since home is halfway around the world. Going there, like he for a month before enrolling, is usually a 24-hour venture featuring numerous flights, layovers and a shocking look on the person sitting next to him.
"I'll tell you what, I wanted to go on a home visit to see Jesse Williams' family more than any player that we have ever recruited," Saban said. "When we looked at the logistics of getting there, it was a three day trip and I could never figure how to fit that in there. That was one where if I went, I think Miss Terry would have had to go with me because there was no way I was going on a recruiting trip for three days to see one family and he would not have even been there.
"That was certainly one of the most interesting recruiting situations we've had."
And now he's possibly the most interesting addition the program has had, with a tremendous amount of potential for both he and the Crimson Tide.
"Pretty much coming to the States I wanted to become the best football player that I could," Williams said. "Obviously I wanted to do that at the best place, with the best people. What better way to become the best player I can than to play with the best people and Alabama football is the best."