Football: Ishaq outgrows old number, old habits
Notre Dame outside linebacker Ishaq Williams has a new uniform number and a new attitude this spring.
(ISR photo/JAMES BROSHER)
6:59 am, April 02, 2012
SOUTH BEND — The No. 11 holds no special significance to Ishaq Williams.
Why the Notre Dame sophomore-to-be outside linebacker evolved to that jersey number this spring was because it was, well, available and it wasn't No. 1 — his digital identity as a freshman and all the way back to his high school days in Brooklyn, N.Y., at Abraham Lincoln High.
“I felt like I was getting too big for No. 1,” he said.
That wasn't the only thing the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder outgrew this offseason. He shed an old mind-set as well.
“The light is starting to come on,” Irish third-year head football coach Brian Kelly said with a smile.
And what exactly does that look like? For the first time since the former five-star prospect enrolled at ND in January 2011 as a 17-year-old, his motor matches his breathtaking ability.
“I'm getting better at practicing,” he said. “I know how to practice full speed all the time. I know how to do my job and be accountable on defense.
“Last year, I was young, and now I see how stuff is done around here. So basically, I'm more comfortable now with the defense and what's expected of me.”
Williams' discomfort with his situation showed in the final stats. Though, he did see action in 11 of the 13 games last season — most of it on special teams — Williams garnered a modest six tackles for the season. That's three fewer than classmate George Atkinson, a running back/kick returner, and only four more than another classmate, kicker Kyle Brindza.
It wasn't just the uneven effort that hindered Williams, it was the complexity of playing the “cat” outside linebacker position in the ND defensive scheme.
Williams certainly had the skill set to drop down into a 4-3 on occasion to rush the passer, play run defense on the edge and drop into coverage. But the nuances of when to do so and how to perfect them were a blur.
“I knew it was going to be hard, and it was hard,” Williams said. “But if something's easy, it's not going to be worth it. I think I understand my job better. I understand the people around me better. I understand how I fit in and what I need to do.”
Helping him to fit in was Manti Te'o, ND's senior-to-be All-American at middle linebacker. When there's a jump in a young player's performance on the defense, invariably there's a Te'o thread that goes along with it.
“He's not in-your-face. He encourages you,” Williams said. “He's like a big brother to all of us. He helps us get better and understand what's expected of us.”
What's expected of Williams now is to push junior Prince Shembo, the latter of whom is currently the No. 1 candidate to replace last year's starter, Darius Fleming.
And providing fuel for that might be in part the success classmates Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt enjoyed last season as freshmen and the quantum improvement they've made this spring.
“If he wanted to be at the competitive level with Aaron and me, he had to jump right on it,” Tuitt said. “And he's awesome.”
Kelly would agree, at least in streaks and spurts. He marveled at a recent practice matchup of another high-ceiling sophomore to be, tight end Troy Niklas, and Williams.
“Pretty exciting stuff,” the coach said. “(Williams) is getting there. He's got to do it consistently. But we know what he's capable of when it all starts to come together.”
Going, going ...
The only remaining tickets for Notre Dame's Sept. 1 season opener in Dublin, Ireland, are in the hands of the ND ticket office.
Navy, the school that's technically the home team in this matchup, has completely exhausted its allotment. Likewise, the tickets available overseas are gone.
Notre Dame will make tickets available through its alumni lottery. If there are any left after the lottery, those tickets will be available for public sale in late May. But that's a big if.
Some travel packages (EmeraldIsleClassic.com) include game tickets, but many of the packages are sold out, and not all of the ones remaining include tickets.
The Bald and the Beautiful fund-raiser, that has become synonymous with the Notre Dame football team in recent years, will take place April 18-20 at ND's LaFortune Student Center.
The head-shaving event has raised more than $115,000 in the past three years to benefit Memorial Hospital in South Bend; St. Baldrick's Foundation, an organization that funds pediatric cancer research; and Pantene Beautiful Lengths.
The volunteers from the football team with have their heads shaved at 5:30 p.m., on April 18. For information, visit bald.nd.edu.
Former Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis, now the head coach at Kansas, spoke Monday night at his new school's pep rally in New Orleans before the Jayhawk men's basketball team took the court against Kentucky in the NCAA title game.