Jonah Williams didn’t grow up in Northern California, but finishing his promising high school football career at Folsom played a major role in his rising stardom and should lead to playing on Sundays next fall.
The junior left tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide has returned to Northern California to play in Monday Night’s college football national championship game against Clemson at Levi’s Stadium. That will likely be his last contest before he declares for the NFL draft. He’s widely expected to go in the top 10 and perhaps be the first offensive player off the board.
When Williams and his teammates landed from Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, his first stop was at In-N-Out, where he schooled his fellow offensive linemen on the fast-food chain’s secret menu.
The 6-foot-5, 301-pound Williams went with the order he refined during his time in the Sacramento area: “Four by four, two Flying Dutchmen, animal-style fries, Neapolitan shake.”
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That monstrosity of a meal includes eight burger patties and eight pieces of cheese, which might be the caloric equivalent to the expectations surrounding his chances at succeeding in the NFL. His coaches describe him as a near-flawless prospect.
“I like to call him ‘The Intellectual,’” Tide offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “He will study his opponent. He knows what their tendencies are.”
Williams hasn’t allowed a sack this season and started all three years for Alabama. He was named to the Associated Press All-America first team this season.
He always wanted to play for a school in the Southeastern Conference while growing up in Atlanta. But his father, an engineer, took a job in Sacramento after his sophomore season in high school in 2013.
He wound up transferring to Folsom, where he played for coach Kris Richardson. The star-studded team included quarterback Jake Browning (University of Washington) and fellow offensive lineman Cody Creason (Arizona). They won a CIF state championship in 2014, Williams’ junior season, finishing 16-0 and playing several games with a running clock because their scores were so lopsided.
Williams’ work ethic matched his physical gifts. He increased his strength to bench press nearly 500 pounds and squat 600 pounds.
He knew he needed to put in extra work to fulfill his SEC dream because he wasn’t playing in the South. Schools were going to have to work harder to find him outside the talent-rich hotbed of the region.
“It gave me a chip on my shoulder because I knew I wanted to go down to an SEC school,” Williams said. “I remember going into my junior year thinking I can’t be the best player on my team, I can’t be the best player in this field, I can’t be the best player in this state. I have to be the best player in this country at my position if I want the opportunity to go down there (to the SEC). Because otherwise … who’s even going to look at me?”
Alabama coach Nick Saban said it wasn’t all that difficult to identify or recruit Williams even though he played some 2,500 miles from campus (Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is from Hawaii, after all).
Saban approaches recruiting much like NFL teams handle the draft.
“We thought Jonah was going to be an outstanding player. He certainly hasn’t disappointed,” Saban said. “He’s played very, very well for us. He’s smart. He’s a great student, he’s graduated. He’s probably one of the best players at his position in the country.”
Williams will have his high school coach in the stands cheering him on. It will be Richardson’s second time watching Williams play in a national title game. He went to the 2017 championship game in Tampa, Fla., won by Clemson.
The two have remained close. Richardson will pick Williams’ brain about things he’s learning at Alabama, while Williams may ask his former coach about his technique from the previous game.
“The thing we had to do with Jonah was remind him to take a break now and then,” Richardson said. “Because he would just work himself so hard. But you got to be sure you don’t break your body down.”
Richardson said all the Pac-12 schools recruited Williams after his junior season, then some SEC schools began to catch on. Williams received an offer from Auburn. But he took a visit to Alabama and his decision was made. The program known for developing some of the NFL’s best players was the one he wanted play for.
“He took that trip and when he came back, he’s like, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to be recruited anymore. I want to commit to Alabama.’ He knew where he wanted to be,” Richardson said.
Awaiting Williams on Monday will be one of his toughest tests to date. Clemson boasts arguably college football’s most ferocious defensive line. Star pass rusher Clelin Ferrell, also a likely top-10 draft pick, will be Williams’ primary match-up.
“(Williams) is a good player,” Ferrell said. “I see it as a great opportunity, not so much as a challenge. Obviously, you play for a program like Clemson, you want to play against the best and he’s considered the best.”