By Jordan Hofeditz
Following a tumultuous first season at Texas A&M, offensive tackle PJ Williams entered the transfer portal in search of a new home. Preferably one where he could come in and start.
Williams, who starred at Dickinson High School, chose to come to SMU. There was just one problem, the Mustangs also added another former SEC tackle in Hyrin White to go with returning starting tackle Marcus Bryant. That didn’t deter the 6-foot-5, 318-pound lineman. He went to work.
“When I entered the portal I looked, mostly, for somewhere I could start, be a big factor, be a big help,” Williams said. “When I got here, I didn’t know Hyrin was coming, but it’s been great. We’ve got guys like Hyrin and Marcus at both tackles who help you a lot. Hyrin has been through a lot, he’s been through another team, another SEC team, and he knows a lot. Everyone’s been a big help and I’m just trying to play as big a role as I can play.”
That has shown up in the way Williams has approached everything. He was behind White on one side during spring, but moved behind Bryant during fall camp. He’s also a guy the Mustangs have looked at as a guard for this season. His talent is one that SMU offensive line coach Garin Justice knows needs to be in the rotation wherever they can get him in the game.
“You have guys like PJ Williams who are saying, ‘play me,’ right? And we feel really good about Marcus Bryant and Hyrin White (at tackle) but we’ve got to play PJ Williams,” Justice said during fall camp. “We’ve got to find a way for a guy like that to get in the game because you’re seeing his talent, his ability and now he’s comfortable with what we’re doing. So now you’re seeing him just take off and progress every single day.”
That’s exactly what has happened. In Week 1, the Mustangs were playing without a backup guard in Ben Sparks and against Oklahoma they lost both starting guards when Justin Osborne and Logan Parr left the game. In stepped Williams into an uncomfortable position.
“PJ, in Game 1, played both (tackle and guard), last week we predominantly worked him at tackle, he ended up in the game (at guard),” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said. “That’s kind of how it goes, but I thought he did a good job considering. … I think PJ (Williams), who didn’t rep at guard all week, went in there and played well, but you lost a lot of experience and and that definitely showed up in a game like that.”
Williams knows he left some plays out on the field. He leaned heavily on third-year starting center Branson Hickman and got some extra practice time at guard this week.
“I could do better. I got threw in some places I really don’t practice too often in. It was a big part,” Williams said. “I worked (Tuesday) at guard and everything is coming to work. When you’ve got people like Branson on the side of you, it makes it a lot easier.”
The coaches also know he is a work in progress. To ask a player who has been a tackle his entire playing career to go in and play guard against a defensive line like Oklahoma’s is no easy task. The fact that he did as well as he did is a testament to the ability and talent Williams has.
“He hadn’t played that position at all. He had played a little bit on the other side, then just the nature of where it was he ended up,” SMU offensive coordinator Casey Woods said. “I thought he was powerful. I thought he was strong. I thought he was maybe one of the biggest culprits of trying to see everything that was happening going on. The more reps he gets in, the better he’ll be at that. He’s a really talented player that I’m glad we’re getting an opportunity to bank all these reps. These are kind of the ones where you go back and you watch the film and you’re like, ‘Dang, this isn’t good, this isn’t good, this isn’t good’ and then one day you’re like, ‘Holy cow, this guy, where did he come from? He got really good.’ You bank all these reps and you just keep playing them and then you play him through the struggles when they’ve got ability because it’s always been my opinion that talent always challenges experience, always. So you just kind of keep playing those talented guys until they figure out what’s going on. Then once they do, once it does register and click then they turn into this guy that, ‘Oh my gosh, where did he come from?’ PJ’s got the potential to be a guy like that.”
That was explained to Williams before his first game with SMU, he was set to be the first offensive lineman off the bench no matter where that ended up being. It was mostly tackle in that game, then it was mostly guard in Week 2.
“Making me as versatile as possible. There was never a talk with it,” Williams said. “Just going into Week 1, right before the game, it was just, ‘PJ, if anyone goes down you’re the runner-up. You’ll get moved to tackle if Marcus goes down, if Branson goes down you move Parr to center and (play guard) and same goes to the other side.’ I watch everybody, but there’s certain drills I don’t go through in practice with the guards, so it was a little hard for me time to time. But just being me, I try to do things to the best of my ability.”
He’s not just open to the coaching of Justice or graduate assistant Hussam Ouri, although they have been a big help.
“Coach Justice, great guy. He treats everybody like family,” Williams said. “There’s no more love to someone, less love to another person. It’s all equal. He comes out, he talks to us and everybody has their days where he’s got to dig into us, but Coach Justice loves the O-line and he takes pride in what he does.”
Williams is also leaning on the veteran players he has around him. White is in his seventh year of playing college football, Bryant is in his fourth and third as a starter at SMU, same for Hickman while Osborne is in his fifth year and fourth as an SMU starter. Even others who have come in through the transfer portal like Parr, Jakai Clark and Caleb Johnson have a lot of experience.
“It’s great. Just working with everybody, the guys that were here before are like natural born leaders,” Williams said. “JO, he’s a great guy to be on the side of when Hyrin went down. I was with JO a lot and JO helped me a lot. Even when I switch to right tackle from time to time with the 1s, I ask JO … just not getting the calls mixed up, everybody’s been a big help.”
And when Williams is lining up next to and with all of those veterans and looking the part, it’s easy to forget he doesn’t have that same kind of experience.
“I think the biggest thing was mentally,” Justice said of Williams taking guard reps this fall. “Physically PJ could go down the board and do any of them it’s, we still forget with PJ, he’s still in his second year of playing college football, so there’s a learning curve for all those guys who have to do that. But talent-wise PJ is one of those few players that could play all five positions and be really, really good at all five positions. He’s athletic and long enough to where he can match someone athletically on the outside, but he’s also anchored and big and powerful enough to work and move people inside. There’s a reason he was who he was out of high school and you’re starting to see it every day in practice.”
Out of high school, Williams was a high four-star prospect, ranked as the 55th best overall prospect, including the No. 7 tackle and No. 9 overall recruit in the state of Texas. He signed with Texas A&M and played in one game before running into some legal troubles. With those troubles behind him and a fresh start at SMU, he is starting to thrive.
“When we got into recruiting PJ, it was the situation of people say what they want to say and you hear what you want to hear,” Justice said. “I went to the high school, talked to his coaches. Went to his house, talked to his mom and dad. Talked to PJ. You’re like, ‘OK, this is this is a case of a kid being immature made a mistake.’ Because his family is awesome. His coaches in high school said, ‘he was great for us,’ he was a multi-sport athlete. A then PJ’s a charmer, I mean he’ll hit you with a smile and he’s got a good personality. He’s outgoing and all those things and he was really remorseful, has turned the corner, has been great. Has been zero, and when I say zero, zero issues for us. And now you’re starting to see him be comfortable with the guys and now his personality’s coming out and showing through, so I couldn’t be more proud of where he’s at, who he is. I’m not happy that what happened in his past happened to him, but I’m glad he’s here and we have him. Thankful for PJ and and those guys in the room have been great of taking him on, mentoring him and bringing him along.”
The offensive line felt the same as the whole team following the Oklahoma game, the opportunities were there, they just weren’t capitalized on enough.
“We felt like we played pretty good, (good enough) to win. But there were things that we could have did better,” Williams said. “A couple of calls we could have pushed to different gaps. But we feel like we played good as a group.”