Jim Phelan didn’t even need to see Rodshon Williams in pads to realize Manatee had a special talent ready to plug into the middle of his defensive line. Williams was still a few months away from his first game with the Hurricanes’ freshman team in 2013 when he and the rest of the incoming freshman class was working, running through get offs in shorts and T-shirts in one of the Manatee High School locker rooms.
Phelan liked to prowl around the locker room on these days, hand-picking the future of his defensive line before Steve Peebles, the offensive line coach at the time, could corral the same players for his side of the ball. Phelan didn’t have a chance to hesitate with Williams, so he called him over.
“He just had the quickest feet out there at 300 pounds,” said Phelan, who was the Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator at the time and now coaches linebackers at Saint Stephen’s. “There were guys out there about 185-250 that didn’t have the feet he had. I saw the feet and I grabbed him right away.”
Williams was impressive enough as a defensive tackle during his freshman season to get a handful of games on varsity. From an early age, Williams seemed destined to be one of the Canes’ next defensive stars
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The rest of the Palmetto defensive tackle’s path to Florida Athletic Coaches Association North-South Football All-Star Classic in the Villages on Saturday, though, wasn’t as smooth. He missed his entire sophomore season because of academics. He was booted from the Manatee program after that season because of a locker-room incident. Even when he takes the field at 1 p.m. at The Villages Charter High School, he’ll do so mostly as an offensive lineman rather than the defensive tackle spot most college coaches are scouting him for.
It’s easy to just see Williams’ frame and immediately get somewhat of an understanding about why he was such a force in the trenches for the Tigers. At 6 feet, 2 inches and 305 pounds, he was the heaviest starter on an already giant Palmetto offensive line. But it’s his footwork and the surprising agility that comes with it which has earned him Football Championship Subdivision offers from Eastern Kentucky, Massachusetts and Liberty.
The athleticism, Williams says, was innate. His first position was quarterback at the Police Athletic League until he reached mighty mites. During the summer when he was 8, Williams had a massive growth spurt and came back as a lineman.
“A few too many sandwiches,” Williams joked.
He kept his finesse, though, and blending in with his newfound strength made him a prodigious talent through his freshman year in Bradenton, until grades kept him out through the following fall.
And once he returned to team activities for the Hurricanes, he didn’t last long. One day after the season and before the end of the semester, Williams was going to a team workout, but forgot the mandatory team shirt. Instead of skipping out on the workout, he took a teammate’s shirt from his locker and when confronted by coaches he was told he’d have to sit out through at least the spring.
“I’m not that type of kid to bump heads with a coach,” Williams said earlier this week. “I was like, What the heck?”
It brought him to the Tigers out of shape and sidelined for a full year until the start of his junior season. While his new teammates prepped for a spring game against St. Petersburg, Williams ran on a treadmill and tried to shed weight. He dropped about 35 pounds from when he arrived in Palmetto until now, head coach Dave Marino estimates.
It was something he needed for his senior year, when Marino asked Williams to start on the offensive line. The Tigers needed him, even if offensive line wasn’t Williams’ future.
“He came a long way in that year and a half that he was with us,” Marino said.
His high school career will officially end Saturday when he suits up alongside fellow Palmetto offensive lineman Christian Kalish and Southeast pass rusher Dequan Williams, while Marino coaches the offensive linemen from the sideline.
For Williams, it’s one final chance to showcase himself at the spot he seemed destined to be a star at. He’ll get some playing time at defensive tackle with college scouts watching, and they’ll see — even with all these years passed — what first stood out four years ago.
“It’s all a matter of getting the second foot in the ground,” Phelan said. “If you get the second foot in the ground first you’re going to win — I don’t care who you are — and he could get his second foot in the ground faster than anybody at any weight.”
What: Florida Athletic Coaches Association North-South Football All-Star Classic
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Where: The Villages
Who’s playing: Rodshon Williams, OL/DT, Palmetto; Christian Kalish, OL, Palmetto; Dequan Williams, DE/LB, Southeast; Dave Marino, head coach, Palmetto