TEMPE, Ariz. - Freshman edge-rusher Ashley Williams stood in the back of the line during the second set of position drills in Tuesday’s practice.
Williams, a 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound defensive lineman, did not finish out the previous drill as strongly as he would’ve liked. Charlie Ragle did not yell at Williams, but he let him know there was room to improve. Fellow edge Clayton Smith gave him some words of encouragement. It was not his best rep.
Less than three minutes later, Williams, now at the front of the line, had a chance to redeem himself. The drill was simple: one defensive lineman needed to battle a double-team block.
Who were Williams opponents? Left tackle Bram Walden and tight end Jalin Conyers. Williams dominated the rep convincingly. A freshman spring-enrollee, one who could be buying a prom suit right now, bested one of ASU’s most established starters.
Dominant rep from #17 DL Ashley Williams.— Kevin Redfern (@KevinMRedfern13) March 23, 2023
Williams is a 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound freshman out of Zachary, LA. The 3/4-star recruit previously de-committed from Auburn.
(Video courtesy of a nice man named Cody whose last name I didn’t catch.) pic.twitter.com/Hz3xvBtsBf
“It’s really just football, bro,” Williams said.
“Don’t get me wrong, high school is fun,” Williams added. “But I came here for a reason, so I can get better and be the best that I can be.”
High school is fun when you win like Williams did. He was a large reason why Zachary High School in central Louisiana won the 2021 5A state title in his junior season. A piece of Zachary will join Williams in Tempe when his defensive-line tandem mate Landen Thomas joins the program in the fall.
“When you’re 17-years-old, you’re in high school,” coach Kenny Dillingham said. “If everything in your bones doesn’t want you to start as a true freshman, live your senior year of high school. Be a 17-year-old. You’re not a pro yet. Is it important that they get reps? Yes. Do a lot of freshman play as true freshman? No. So is it worth losing your senior year? (That is) up to you. It is an advantage, but I still say let high-school kids be high-school kids. Everybody says ‘don’t grow up too fast,’ then we are the adults trying to get them grow up too fast.”
Does Williams have that ability to make an immediate impact? Possibly. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward makes defensive linemen of all identities take reps at all positions on the defensive line.
“We got a-ways to go, and we gotta clean some things up,” Ward said. “You may see some guys moving positions down the road, but right now, we are really trying to evaluate and see what these guys’ strengths are.
“You may see four edge’s on the field at the same time a lot this season. You may see some other defensive tackles continuing to develop. We have some tools to play with.”
Williams’ frame certainly does him favors in terms of versatility. Think about former Sun Devil Eric Gentry. The 6-foot-6 USC linebacker played in an outside role — like Williams — at ASU, but he has successfully transitioned to insider linebacker in Los Angeles. There are many uses for a long, 6-foot-5 defender like Williams.
Also, the edge group looks mean this year. Smith, the Oklahoma-transfer looks like Predator and has acted the part so far in practice. ASU’s sack-leader from 2021 and 2022, B.J. Green II, is taking most of his reps at edge. Transfers Prince Dorbah and Elijah O’Neal have shown flashes. Gharin Stansbury is a practice all-star, per usual. Michael Matus is returning off his ACL-injury, and Dylan Hall took rotational snaps last season.
There just isn’t a ton of room in a talented position group.
“They’re some pretty good-looking athletes (at edge),” Ward said. “Right now, it’s kind of like a candy box. One guy is a little sweeter, one guy is a little chunkier. Another guy is a little more filling, and the other guy you don’t even know that he’s there.”
The offense certainly has Williams on its radar. During inside-run, Williams took up a double-team that allowed linebacker James Djonkam to make one of the strongest plays of the day behind the line of scrimmage.
The speed of the college game was initially a shock. Williams says that he was winded after all the commotion from the first practice, but he is already used to the flow in week two. The edge’s are a tight group, too. One bonding trip they’ve made already was a group rendezvous to Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert.
As a pass-rusher, Williams is smooth. He’s already developed a spin-move to compliment his exceptional bend for his height. His arm length makes him a danger to quarterbacks who release the ball at a low angle. He nearly swatted multiple passes in practice Thursday, though nearly only gets you so far in football.
He looks up to Bills edge Von Miller and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett. There are few film tapes that showcase more explosiveness than those of Miller and Garrett. It’s not a bad place to start.
We’ll see if he starts swinging helmets. Let’s call it unlikely.