By Ron Clements
Special to The Globe
Brandon Williams has not played an NFL down and he already has an interception return against an NFL quarterback to his credit.
While both were still in high school in the St. Louis area, Williams batted a pass from current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the air. The ball fell into his arms, Williams juggled it before finally gaining control and rumbling into the end zone.
“He tried to throw a screen over my head,” the Missouri Southern defensive tackle said Saturday afternoon from the NFL Combine inside Lucas Oil Stadium. “I jumped up, tipped it up and was bobbling it as I was running to the end zone. After that I just kind of ran around the goal post. It was nice.”
Mike Bellers, Williams’ high school coach at Rockwood Summit, will be happy to see the first of his former players reach the NFL.
“It’s a rare opportunity and I’m really happy for him,” Bellers said on Saturday. “I hope he makes the most of it.
“Brandon was always exceptional in strength, size, speed and quickness. It was just a matter of him staying on the right path. He was always a good kid. He put himself in a position to play college football and it was just matter of time before he put himself in a position to do something more.”
Recruited by several Division I schools out of high school, Williams was a partial qualifier and eventually landed at Division II Missouri Southern. With the Lions, Williams dominated after he came back from a redshirt season as a sophomore. Despite missing a season because of a back injury, Williams became just the third player in NCAA history to earn three straight Division II All-America honors. It was following his redshirt sophomore season that he began to believe the NFL was a distinct possibility.
“After I got that first All-American, then I knew I could do it,” said Williams. “The next year was another All-American, and then the next year was another All-American and defensive player of the year, so after that (the NFL) was definitely in my view.”
While rehabbing from his injury, a bulging disc and pinched nerve that required surgery after his freshman season, there was a fleeting moment of doubt.
“I never really considered quitting, it was a quick thought,” Williams explained. “But then I thought I’m not going to be one of those guys who ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ I’m not going to be one of those guys.
“If I can’t go, I’ll prove I can’t go on the field.”
A self-described “high-motor” player, Williams saw his draft stock soar during an impressive week at the Senior Bowl last month.
“It was very beneficial,” Williams said. “The big question over my head was can I play with the D-I players, and I think I definitely showed everyone at the NFL level and at the Senior Bowl that I can.
“It was a pretty big draft bump. I was hearing from anywhere from fifth round, fourth round, third round. Now I’m hearing second. Hopefully this week I can stay in the second or maybe even move to the first.”
Williams measured in at only 6-foot-1, but believes it to be an advantage to create leverage against taller offensive linemen. When asked if he will face a stiff learning curve going from Division II to the NFL, he cited his Senior Bowl week and simply said, “No.”
“I can always get better, technique-wise and footwork,” said the 335-pound tackle.
Because Rockwood Summit is the Falcons, Williams said he’d be very comfortable wearing an Atlanta uniform.
“That’s fine with me,” Williams said before adding that he can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense and that no teams are trying to pigeonhole him into any one system.
One reason is his strength. Williams is confident he can do at least 40 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, “maybe more.” The Combine record in the bench press is 49 by Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea in 2011.
Williams is one of five St. Louis-area players at the Combine this weekend, joining Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe, Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball.
“St. Louis has the greatest talent in the nation,” Ball facetiously said on Friday.