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Jonah Williams, trench terror at Folsom and Alabama, is drafted by Cincinnati Bengals

Learn more about the Sacramento-area players invited to the NFL Combine

The Sacramento region has five NFL draft prospects invited to the annual NFL scouting combine. Alabama tackle Jonah Williams and USC linebacker Cameron Smith are among the five.
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The Sacramento region has five NFL draft prospects invited to the annual NFL scouting combine. Alabama tackle Jonah Williams and USC linebacker Cameron Smith are among the five.

Kris Richardson is a lineman guy, an insider of sorts on what makes guys go in the trenches.

He’s the Sacramento State offensive line coach and former Folsom High School head coach, and just the mention of tackles, guards and centers makes the man beam. Last week, Richardson was talking shop with Hornets linemen when Jonah Williams came up, and that’s when the eyebrows raised.

Williams is the powerhouse 6-foot-5, 305-pound Alabama left tackle from Folsom who was picked No. 11 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday. Williams was first offensive lineman selected in this draft and he is the highest area product drafted since Reggie Rogers went seventh to the Lions in 1987 out of Notre Del Rio (since closed) and Washington.

Williams is the 14th area product selected in the first round, and he joins Gordon King of Bella Vista and Stanford as the only tackle to go in the first round. King went 10th in 1978 to the Giants.

Williams has been a big area name for years, and expects to be for years to come. The legend of Jonah has local roots.

“Showed film of Jonah annihilating guys, the wreckage of knocking a lineman down, then getting to a linebacker, then to a safety, all on one play — amazing,” Richardson said. “You just don’t get guys like that.

“That highlight tape of Jonah, our guys (at Sac State) were excited. They saw Jonah launching guys, shot putting them 5 yards down field.”

A 4.0 student, Williams was a cornerstone along with quarterback Jake Browning on a 16-0 Folsom team in 2014 that is the best in Sac-Joaquin Section history. He played on the right side of the line for some plays, the left on others — all designed to crush the will of opposing defenders.

Williams continued his carnage at Alabama, emerging as a three-year starter and an All-American in 2018. He started as a true freshman, the first to do so at tackle for any Nick Saban-coached team.

Alabama is a pipeline to the NFL, and Williams fit the mold, the role and the part as a superior athlete with his preparation, technique and attention to detail setting him apart. He graduated in three years at Alabama, another goal he conquered.

The excitement of the selection resonated throughout Tuscaloosa, where football is king in Alabama, to Tennessee, where the draft was held, to Folsom, where Williams’ former coaches and teammates sat glued to their TVs.

Richardson and wife Kelly were invited by Williams to attend the NFL Draft’s green room. They could not make it but were there in spirit.

The Richardson-Williams relationship is a friendship that started as player and coach and has blossomed into man to man. Williams has said he owes a great deal to his Folsom teachers, coaches and teammates.

Williams has long been known to be ferocious in shoulder pads and kind and considerate out of gear. He fast became liked and revered at Alabama, wowing teammates with his dry sense of humor, culinary skills, academic prowess and, yes, ability to muscle up players in the biggest games.

“As great of a football player he is,” Richardson said, “he’s even better as a person. The way he treats people, how good of a guy he is ... that’s Jonah.”

Richardson saw greatness in Williams from about the first time he saw him. There was a palpable buzz at Folsom in the winter of 2014 with rumor of a hulking talent ready to impact the campus. Richardson and then-Folsom co-coach Troy Taylor, now heading the Sac State program, were naturally curious.

“We got wind from a track coach on campus that a discus guy was coming and he played a little football,” Richardson said.

Then, the football coaches saw this burly 6-4, 265-pound figure fill a door frame to say hello, all hearty beard, firm handshake, locked-in eye contact and smiles.

Recalled Richardson, “We saw him and thought, ‘Wow! Please be Jonah! Please be Jonah! Please be Jonah!’

“He was mature, very focused, never acted like a typical goofy teen. I had to remind him to enjoy the process, to enjoy what’s happening. He was always hungry to get better. You just knew he was special.”

How special? Williams is the most dominant player I covered in this region, including 30 years on the area beat for The Bee. But I never had to devise a scheme against him.

Coaches did. Del Oro assistant coach Bill Sherman calls Williams “the greatest player in Sacramento-area history.” Rio Linda coach Jack Garceau said Williams is “the best high school lineman I’ve ever seen.”

Williams was raw initially at Folsom, a power guy who overwhelmed all comers. In time, and through tireless work with Richardson, Williams became as polished and technically sound as he was physically overwhelming. He became a national must-have 5-star recruit.

And Williams has remained humble from the start. The only tweet Williams posted in high school was when he committed to Alabama. He regularly turned down calls from recruiters at Folsom to focus on the task at hand — his studies and Folsom football.

Many of his social media posts at Alabama included meals he prepared — he loves the idea of being a chef — or photos with fellow linemen. There has not been an ounce of controversy or discord associated with Williams.

Richardson marvels at the prospect he had, and how good Williams has become. From great to greater.

“At first,” Richardson said, “we had to teach him to pass protect. He was eager to learn, to be good, great. His version of pass protecting was to run block and throw the guy to the ground.

“One, you’ve got 100 pounds on little Jimmy, so we knew we had to teach him to dominate in pass protection.”

And this: Folsom coaches often had to tell Williams to tone it down in drills as the big kid knew one speed — frenetic. Coaches would blow their whistle and holler, “Jonah! Easy, man! We need our guys!”

“He was absolutely dominant in high school, even in practice,” Richardson said. “You could go to jail for the brutality he showed.”

Williams said days before the draft the work never ends.

“I think the thing about the NFL is everyone’s so good,” he said. “Every team has eight guys that were the very best in college. So, for me, I’m just going to be grateful for an opportunity to play anywhere.

“I played left tackle at a high level in college. I played right tackle at a high level in college. But I’d be willing to play anything a team wants me to play just because I know how big of a feat it is to be playing in the NFL.”

Jonah Williams

Age: 20

Position: Left tackle

Height/weight: 6-foot-5, 305 pounds

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall, Cincinnati Bengals

College: Alabama

Skinny: Dominating since his prep days at Folsom High School, Williams was the top lineman for national power Alabama his final three seasons, all starts. Williams is a chef at heart, wowing teammates, linemen especially, with his culinary skills (think: steaks, meat and more meat).

FROM SACRAMENTO TO THE NFL

The Sacramento region has had 14 first-round picks in the NFL draft.

Here’s the list with their draft year, position, high school, NFL team and draft position:

2019: OL Jonah Williams, Folsom, Bengals, 11th

2018: OL Kolton Miller, Roseville, Raiders, 15th

2015: DL Arik Armstead, Pleasant Grove, 49ers, 17th

2015: LB Shaq Thompson, Grant, Carolina Panthers, 25th

2002: WR Donte Stallworth, Grant, New Orleans Saints, 13th

1997: WR Rae Carruth, Valley, Carolina Panthers, 27th

1987: DL Reggie Rogers, Norte Del Rio, Detroit Lions, 7th

1985: OL Trevor Matich, Rio Americano, New England Patriots, 28th

1984: CB Don Rogers, Norte Del Rio, Cleveland Browns, 18th

1983: QB Tony Eason, Delta, New England Patriots, 15th

1983: QB Ken O’Brien, Jesuit, New York Jets, 24th

1982: RB Gerald Willhite, Cordova, Denver Broncos, 21st

1978: OL Gordon King, Bella Vista, New York Giants, 10th

1978: LB Dan Bunz, Oakmont, 49ers, 24th

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.
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