AUBURN — D.J. Williams’ decision to commit to Auburn on Dec. 19, the first day of the early signing period, wasn’t met with much fanfare.
Yes, the Tigers needed to add a running back to their 2019 class. But this one? Williams spent his senior season playing mostly quarterback in a small town of Sebring, Fla., not known for producing football talent. He had only just recently gotten a third star to put next to his name by recruiting services. He had only two scholarship offers just two months earlier — Appalachian State (where he had been committed since July) and UMass.
Surely, some fans must have thought, Auburn, a storied SEC program, could do better than flipping a Sun Belt commit, right?
None of them are thinking that anymore.
The Tigers return their three leading rushers from last season in JaTarvious Whitlow, Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers (who missed spring practice to focus on track), but on A-Day, it was the true freshman early enrollee Williams who put forth the best performance.
The 5-foot-10, 216-pound running back ran through defensive back Christian Tutt for extra yards on his first carry. On his fourth, he bounced a draw play outside, evaded defensive backs Daniel Thomas and Noah Igbinoghene, broke out of an attempted tackle from linebacker Zakoby McClain and ran 29 yards to convert a second-and-13.
The rookie led all players with 57 rushing yards on 11 carries, and he did it running behind Auburn’s second-team offensive line and against its first-team defense.
“That one run he made had the ‘wow’ factor,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He broke a couple of good tackles against good tacklers and had some acceleration and almost spun out of there. He’s a really good runner and he showed a lot of toughness for a true freshman.”
It wasn’t a surprise to the coaches who recruited him or the players who have practiced alongside him this spring. This is the player they expected to get when they signed Williams out of Sebring — tough, fast, elusive. They weren’t the only ones.
The short version of the story is that Williams decommitted from Appalachian State on Dec. 17 and signed with Auburn two days later. The long version reveals that he was as sought-after as maybe any running back in the country over the final month leading up to the early signing period.
His recruitment didn’t start out that way. Nothing close to it. Williams suffered an ankle injury that limited him to fewer than six games during his junior season at Sebring, which is the time a lot of recruits first begin to really get on college radars.
His head coach, LaVaar Scott, tried to tell college coaches about Williams, but their response was, “we need to see more of him.” When Williams performed well at camps the following summer, those coaches told Scott, “we still need to see him do it in a game.”
But even when Williams did do it in a game, the offers didn’t come. He starred for an eight-win Blue Streaks team even after an injury to a teammate necessitated his move to quarterback, rushing for 1,221 yards and 21 touchdowns to go along with 1,113 passing yards and 13 more scores. Appalachian State offered in July, and UMass followed suit in October, but when the regular season ended, those were still the only two schools after him.
“I’m like, OK, what is going to be enough?” Scott told the Montgomery Advertiser. “Some were kind of like, ‘Oh, we want to offer him, but we just want to wait,’ or ‘We’ve got a kid right now; we don’t want to piss off the kid we love and we want to see if we can keep him under the radar.’ That was really what disappointed me the most.”
It wasn’t until Auburn offered on Nov. 8 that Williams’ recruitment took off. Tennessee and Colorado followed suit the same day; Miami, Tulane and FIU a day after that; and Texas one more day later. By the time the dust settled, Williams had 20 offers — also from the likes of Clemson, Ole Miss and Michigan — and took official visits to Alabama and Georgia on back-to-back weekends before the early signing period began.
Malzahn said back in December that he “can’t remember a running back that blew up that fast.” When everything was all said and done, Williams was a four-star recruit ranked No. 21 at his position with his pick of some of the nation’s top programs. Scott said he chose the Tigers because they were the first to really choose him.
“Auburn was the first one in Power 5 that said, ‘No, we’re offering him, and we want everyone to know.’ That panned out for them,” Scott said. “Sometimes, that first girl is the one you end up being in love with. Good thing Auburn did what they did.”
Williams will have to prove himself all over again now that he’s in college. Between Whitlow, Martin and Shivers, Auburn returns three players who combined to total 1,616 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 323 attempts last season. Malik Miller and Harold Joiner will also be in the mix for carries, and another four-star recruit, Mark-Antony Richards, will join the program this summer.
But Williams has already made a strong first impression, which started even before his A-Day performance. During the Tigers’ second scrimmage on April 6, an offensive lineman missed a block on a draw play, a defender burst into the backfield, and Williams got blown up by a hard hit.
The freshman got right back up, handed the ball to the official, looked to the sideline to get the call and carried the ball again on the next play.
“Malzahn put it on videotape and showed the team, ‘this is what we’re trying to be,’” Scott said. “Right there. That’s what they got. They got a tough kid. He’s smart. He’s definitely a legitimate FBS, Power 5 guy.”
Maybe that initial lack of excitement over landing Williams was a reaction to losing Asa Martin, the former four-star running back recruit and Alabama Mr. Football out of Decatur who transferred to Miami because the coaching staff botched his redshirt. Or maybe it was just general anti-Malzahn sentiment after weeks of rumors and hearsay about his job security, contract situation and $30-million-plus buyout coming off a 7-5 regular season that ended with a 31-point loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Whatever it was, it may end up being nothing more than a distant memory if Williams continues to ascend like he has over the past six months.
“I knew he could be good when he came in because Auburn don’t just recruit anybody. I knew he was going to be special,” Kam Martin said. “He still has stuff to work on like all of us do, but he’s going to be good.”