UNC’s Williams developed into likely first-round pick
Sylvester Williams didn’t play football until his senior year of high school, and he was only good enough to start one game.
After that, he worked at Modine Manufacturing Company making radiator parts for large trucks before enrolling at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, where the football coaches told him not to bother showing up for tryouts.
Now the North Carolina defensive tackle is expected to complete an unlikely path from the factory floor to the first round of the NFL draft.
The eight mock drafts by analysts on NFL.com all have Williams being selected between 15th and 30th in tonight’s first round (8 p.m., ESPN). The 6-3, 315-pound defensive tackle was an All-ACC first-team pick by the media and the coaches after recording 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, despite a mid-season ankle sprain.
“I’ve had God on my side for the last four years of my life, and He’s pretty much just laid everything out for me and told me if you work hard, it’s there for you,” Williams said. “So I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities, and all I can do is take advantage of them.”
Williams’ perseverance through adversity comes through on the football field, where he fought through double-teams and tight spaces in the interior of the line to get into the backfield.
“He plays with a great motor,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s got that never-say-die attitude. He’s going to give all he’s got. He believes he’s going to get there.”
Williams’ path to the NFL started four years ago when he was working eight-hour factory shifts and realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
While he had limited experience with football — he played basketball growing up — Williams also knew he was the same size as the college players he would watch on television.
“I didn’t have a ton of film, but the biggest thing with me is I always had work ethic,” Williams said. “And I knew deep down in my heart that there was something more out there for me in life than there was in that factory.”
With the help of Andre Salmon, a teacher from his high school, Williams decided to enroll at Coffeyville. At first, the coaches weren’t interested in such a raw talent but gave Williams a chance to walk on because of his size.
The Jefferson City, Mo., native earned a scholarship before the season started. Two years later, he was ranked the No. 12 junior college talent by SI.com and had his choice of Division I programs.
“I worked harder than everybody else because I knew they had an advantage over me,” Williams said. “When I started to establish myself as a star, bigger schools became interested, and that motivated me to work harder and harder.”
In his first season with the Tar Heels, Williams was one of four defensive players to start all 13 games. In 2012, the tackle was the leader of the defensive line, as well as a constant source of motivation for his teammates.
“A lot of guys, it was easy for them to get here because they went to big-time high schools,” Williams said. “I just tell guys that everybody isn’t blessed with opportunities that we are, and we have to take advantage. I was once a walk-on, and what set me apart was I worked harder than everybody on the team.”
Cooper attends draft
While Williams may have the most unconventional story, he probably won’t be the first UNC player selected in the draft. That honor likely will go to Jonathan Cooper, a Wilmington native will be attending the event in New York City tonight.
Seven of the eight mock drafts on NFL.com have the senior guard going between seventh and 12th. UNC hasn’t had an offensive lineman taken in the first round since tackle Harris Barton was picked 22nd in 1987.
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said that Buffalo, which picks eighth, and Tennessee, which picks 10th, seriously are considering drafting the Outland Trophy finalist.
“He’s as athletic a guard as you’ll ever find,” Kiper said. “You can see him 30 yards down the field making a key block.”