By Scott Wolf, Los Angeles Daily News
Many times a top-five pick disappears leading up to the NFL draft, sequestered at a training facility provided by a high-powered agent and holed up on draft day until his name is announced by commissioner Roger Goodell.
USC defensive end Leonard Williams took the opposite approach and spent his pre-draft days more like a fan than a future millionaire. He was spotted at off-campus parties, attended more USC spring practices than any player in his position and embraced going to Chicago for Thursday’s draft ceremony.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be there,” Williams said. “I think I’m the best (player in the draft) and I would like to enjoy it.”
Many of his contemporaries will not attend, worried about being embarrassed by sitting in the green room for too long. Williams is atypical, however, and never uses terms like “business decisions,” to describe his actions. He still rides a skateboard at USC and “sticks to Uber” for car rides because he still has not gotten a driver’s license.
His boyish enthusiasm contributes to his persona. Instead of being a prima donna at USC who coasted during practices, one would be hard-pressed to find another player who worked harder. Williams was almost too physical in practices and always played at a high speed.
In his final USC practice at Howard Jones Field, Williams wore a tie over his jersey. No one thought it made light of the practice because Williams was still just as likely to flatten a running back or offensive lineman.
“He set an example to everyone else that was so important,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “It would be easy for someone in his position to not always give his (best effort). He wasn’t always 100 percent (healthy) and he never came out.
“That guy loves football. He loves playing football. He loves his teammates.”
NFL draft guru Mike Mayock rates Williams the No. 1 defensive player in the draft. So does ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. Williams is considered a safe bet to be among the top three picks. For weeks, it looked like the Tennessee Titans would select Williams with the No. 2 pick.
“Leonard Williams fits them like a glove,” Mayock said. “He makes sense for them.”
But recently, it has appeared that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota would go second, either to the Titans or a team that trades for the No. 2 pick. That leaves Williams for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who select third. Or if he drops, the Oakland Raiders at No. 4.
“The Raiders have kind of been like my favorite, hometown team,” Williams said. “I love their colors, I love their tradition, I love their defense.”
Wherever he goes, Williams draws only praise.
“He woke up with something this morning most people don’t,” Mayock said. “It’s called talent.
“He can play any position in a 3-4 or 4-3 you would like him to play. He reminds me a lot of Richard Seymour when he came out, who was drafted at No. 6 overall. A little of J.J. Watt. He’s kind of a no-brainer, I think, if he continues to want to be the best player.”
Williams agrees he is the best player and believes he is better than Mariota or Jameis Winston.
“I’m a player that pushes myself the best I can,” Williams said. “It was hard (to say I was the best), but I believe in myself.”
It is pretty difficult to find questions regarding Williams and his talent. But NFL teams love to scrutinize and find faults with the can’t-miss prospects. An AFC coach, who asked not to be identified, expressed his concerns.
“Usually you want a more explosive player at defensive end,” the coach said. “I’d like to see more explosiveness. As a defensive end lining up over the tight end, will he be physical enough to play over the tight end?”
That suggests Williams is better suited at defensive tackle, despite Mayock feeling he can play multiple positions.
“He’s a jack of all trades and a master of none,” the coach said. “Will he be unique? That is the question I have.”
Even with those reservations, the coach said he would like to have the option to select Williams but doubted he would be available.
“Even if you have doubts, you can plug him into a spot and start him right away,” the coach said.
Williams lacks doubts and cannot wait to start his pro career.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Williams said. “I would say that I’m going to bring that disruption and physical nature and I’m going to get to the quarterback and get some sacks.”