By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE - Vanderbilt's defensive backs know how to work hard and play hard.
This offseason, members of a young Commodores' secondary have made it a point to grow closer off the field. The leaders of that group - senior safety LaDarius Wiley and junior cornerback Joejuan Williams - routinely organize defensive back outings, like a recent venture to Dave & Buster's. But when the time comes to flip the switch, the faces of Vanderbilt's secondary understand the importance of sweat equity.
"We come back when the coaches aren't around, get in here and go to work," Williams said. "That's what I love about this group."
Much of that mindset is fueled by Williams, who enters 2018 as a seasoned veteran on the back-end of Vanderbilt's defense. The junior is the team's lone returning cornerback to have started multiple games last fall. But the 6-3 Williams ranks among the most talented Commodore defenders and expects to play a key role in helping Vanderbilt's defense bounce back from a down year in 2017.
Williams, a Nashville native, arrived at Vanderbilt as a touted four-star signee and early enrollee in January 2016, and he wasted no time in breaking into the defensive rotation. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, ending the season as a key cog at corner alongside upperclassmen Tre Herndon and Torren McGaster. Last fall, Williams started all 12 games at corner and amassed 39 total tackles - including 33 solo stops - 2.5 tackles for loss, 10 defensed passes and a forced fumble.
Vanderbilt entered spring practice in February having lost seven starters on defense, an exodus that included four seniors in the secondary like Herndon and safety Ryan White. In fact, Wiley and Williams are the only two defensive backs to have started multiple games in 2017. That's why Williams has spent this offseason shouldering a new burden of leadership.
"The thing I really like about this group is guys like me, LaDarius and Zaire [Jones] have stepped up to lead the young guys," Williams said. "As a freshman, you need that. It's up to the older guys to guide you. I had a good leader in Willie Herndon early in my career. I'm trying to become the same kind of leader."
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason has compared Williams' size and skillset to that of Richard Sherman, the All-Pro NFL cornerback who once starred under Mason's tutelage at Stanford. Now it's Williams' time to shine, Mason said.
"You look at Joejuan Williams on the outside, I believe he is going to have a dominant year out at corner," Mason said.
This spring saw a new-look group of cornerbacks get its feet wet. Senior Donovan Sheffield, redshirt sophomore Elijah Hamilton and sophomore Tae Daley showed flashes and expect to make a big impact in 2018. While Williams is the de-facto leader of the group, he still pops in film of last season with first-year cornerbacks coach Terrence Brown to hone his ever-developing technique. On occasion, Williams said he even watches tape of Sherman and Jacksonville Jaguars' cornerback Jalen Ramsey, an opportunity to learn from the game's very best.
"Joejuan having that experience definitely does helps, but there's still room for him to grow," Brown said.
Now Williams says his best football is in front of him.
"The biggest priority is always helping the team win," Williams said. "But individually, you've always got to have that confidence. I believe I'm the best corner in the nation. I believe I'm the best player in the nation. That's the mindset you have got have, and that's what I'm trying to push these young cats to have. I don't care who's in front of you or behind you, you've got to consider yourself the best."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.