Sophomore slotback emerges as playmaker for Navy football
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: September 20, 2018
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — CJ Williams initially learned the Navy fielded a football team from his older brother, who was recruited by the service academy.
Greg “LG” Williams Jr. decided to stay home and play football for nearby Texas State, a decision he later regretted after head coach Dennis Franchione retired and was replaced by Everett Withers.
CJ Williams learned a lot more about Navy football when he attended a Texas State game in September, 2014. LG and CJ were a senior and sophomore, respectively, at Byron P. Steele High when the whole family watched the Midshipmen rout the host Bobcats, 35-21.
“I do remember being impressed that Navy had a very good team,” CJ Williams said. “I was like ‘Wow, these Navy boys are really putting it on Texas State.’ It was kind of surprising.”
Navy assistant Danny O’Rourke returned to Byron P. Steele to recruit CJ Williams and basically received the same response he did from LG (“Little Greg”), who wound up being switched from quarterback to slot receiver at Texas State.
“I went to see CJ in the spring and he didn’t have much interest in the Naval Academy,” O’Rourke recalled.
Williams was focused on Ivy League schools at the time and wound up visiting Columbia and Harvard. However, although the academics were top-notch, the caliber of football was not.
Williams thought back to what he saw that night in San Marcos and started reconsidering the service academy in Annapolis. The All-State selection did some research and discovered Navy also played Notre Dame annually along with the likes of Houston and SMU as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
“I got a call back from the Steele High coach late in the season saying CJ now had interest,” O’Rourke said. “As soon as I got a chance, I went down there to meet CJ and talk with him. I’m excited we convinced him to take a visit and eventually got him on board.”
Greg Williams Sr. first heard CJ was considering the Navy while driving him to San Antonio for a senior all-star game in early December.
“We were talking on the way down there and I was asking CJ where he was going to go when he suddenly brought up Navy. I was somewhat surprised because I didn’t think he was interested in a service academy,” the elder Williams said. “I immediately went into quiz mode to see what CJ knew about the whole deal and he seemed very well-versed.”
Greg Sr., who remembered Navy making contact with LG, did his own research and was impressed by what he discovered.
“I laid out some numbers for CJ about how much the education was worth and what kind of salary he would have after graduation,” the father said. “I think the career opportunities that come with a Naval Academy degree carried a lot of weight with CJ, who is a long-term thinking kind of guy.”
Byron P. Steele, located in Cibolo, Texas, lost in the Class 5A Division II state championship when Williams was a senior in 2016. Cibolo Steele captured the state title at that level in 2010 and reached the final in 2011.
Having been part of a powerful program on the high school level, Williams realized he aspired to a higher level of collegiate competition than the Ivy League.
“CJ wanted to play big-time football and Navy was in that realm while Harvard was not,” Greg Williams Sr. said. “We all felt Navy offered the perfect mix of academics and athletics. It just seemed like a real good match.”
However it wound up happening, the Navy coaching staff is certainly happy the underrated two-star recruit chose the academy. After serving on the scout team and playing junior varsity as a plebe, Williams has emerged as a real playmaker this season.
Williams had a breakout performance against Lehigh last Saturday, establishing career-highs with 104 receiving yards and 41 rushing yards. He averaged a whopping 16 yards per touch, having caught three passes and taken six pitchouts. Making the day even better was the fact Greg Williams Sr. and wife April were in attendance at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“It was great to have a game like that with my parents in the stands,” Williams said. “I don’t want to dwell on what I did too much. I have to put it behind me and move forward.”
Williams is his own worst critic and having reviewed the Lehigh film he found some minor mistakes that slotbacks coach Joe DuPaix did not even mention.
“I’ve got to work on not taking as many false steps. I noticed I had a lot of them this past game,” he said. “That’s something I try to stay on myself about – just doing all the little things right all the time.”
Williams played slot receiver at Steele High and had a huge senior season with 75 catches for 971 yards and nine touchdowns. Power Five schools loved the athleticism, but did not project a 5-foot-8, 180-pounder to succeed in the slot at that level.
O’Rourke watched highlight after highlight of Williams making great grabs then piling up yards after catch and saw an ideal slotback for Navy’s triple-option system.
“You watched the tape and CJ was the punt returner, the kick returner, the slot receiver. He could run and catch and do a lot of good things,” O’Rourke said. “I knew we could teach him how to get into tail motion, catch a pitch and run.”
Williams took an official visit to the Naval Academy in January and followed current senior Tre Walker around campus. He remembers some amazing meals provided to the recruits and enjoyed hanging out with Walker and some of the other veteran slots such as Dishan Romine.
“Everybody in my family was pushing me to come to the academy. They were saying it was a great opportunity and I would be set for life,” Williams said. “I wasn’t sure a military academy was the thing for me until I came on my visit and got know all the guys. I loved everything about The Brotherhood and the family atmosphere I found here.”
Navy has a long history of great slots who stood 5-foot-9 or shorter such as Reggie Campbell, Gee Gee Greene and DeBrandon Sanders, just to new a few.
“Height has always been a question mark for CJ. He likes the fact Navy plays undersized kids who didn’t have a bunch of stars coming out of high school,” Greg Williams Sr. said. “CJ views himself as somewhat of an underdog who is constantly trying to prove he belongs.”
It didn’t take long for Williams to learn the positional mantra of “A’s make plays,” a reference to the slots being listed as A Backs in the triple-option terminology.
“It’s a really unique position in this offense, definitely a very important position,” said Williams, who was a running back up until high school. “I enjoy running routes downfield because that’s what I did in high school. Taking the pitch and getting the edge is fun because you always have a chance to break a big gain.”
Many of Navy’s slotbacks were tailbacks at the high school level and exclusively carried the ball with a lead blocker. Freshman year can be a rude awakening for those types as blocking ability is the key to playing slotback for Navy.
“In order to get on the field in high school I had to block. That’s the one thing my position coach stressed so I worked on blocking all the time,” Williams said. “I’ve always been one of the smallest guys on the team so I was accustomed to cut blocking like we do here.”
Joe DuPaix took over as slotbacks coach when he was hired in March, marking his second stint overseeing that position group for Navy. Williams was one of several rising sophomore slots that impressed the new assistant along with Myles Fells and Garrett Winn.
Navy graduated four slotbacks while a fifth, Malcolm Perry, moved to quarterback. That left plenty of openings on the depth chart and Williams seized a backup spot behind Walker and fellow starter Keoni-Kordell Makekau.
“CJ is a real hard worker, very intelligent football player and just has a great overall attitude,” DuPaix said. “There is no doubt CJ has the skills and the toughness to play the position here. He is a very talented young man who loves the game of football and has been a pleasure to coach.”
Williams is a quiet sort with a ready smile and real positive outlook. DuPaix described the youngster as “one of those guys that has a contagious personality. Guys want to be around him because he works so hard and does everything he is supposed to do.”
Early indications are that Williams will be a key figure in the passing game as he currently leads Navy with six catches for 148 yards. He hauled in a 49-yard bomb from Perry against Lehigh after making grabs of 17 and 16 yards versus Hawaii and Memphis, respectively.
“We’re really pleased with how CJ is performing. He earned playing time coming out of camp and what he’s done so far has earned even more time,” DuPaix said. “CJ wanted to be on the field so he put in the time to learn the plays and understand the system. Because of that character and dedication, he was ready to contribute. It’s been really exciting to watch him develop.”
Williams loves the camaraderie of the slotback meeting room and said the unit grew extremely tight while staying on the same floor of Bancroft Hall during August training camp. He has already developed a close bond with classmates Fells and Winn, who both provided stiff competition during preseason practice.
“It’s just a blessing to be playing as a sophomore. I’ve been thinking about this moment all my life so I was ready,” Williams said. “I knew we were losing a lot of players at the position and there would be opportunities for playing time. I knew I needed to stay in the playbook and make sure I knew the offense and had the plays down pat.”