Jonathan Allen knew.
During an interview back in December 2016, the outgoing Alabama defensive linemen was asked who was the next Jonathan Allen? Without hesitating, his answer was surprising in context.
“Quinnen Williams,” Allen said two years ago. “That’s the guy you need to know. He’s going to be a baller. He’s going to be a beast.”
Allen, an All-American and national defensive player of the year, cited Williams’ tenacity, toughness and the fact he’s “just mean.” There were 5-stars on the roster like Da’Ron Payne, so Williams was somewhat off-the-radar at the time.
Now, that dark horse scout-team star as a redshirting freshman, is a potential top draft pick likely playing in his final game in an Alabama jersey. He’ll be the focus of Clemson’s offensive game plan as the two play in Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship in Santa Clara, California.
Williams went from being a lightly-used defensive end last fall to a unanimous All-American interior defensive lineman who finished eighth in the Heisman voting. He estimated getting maybe three snaps in last year’s title game against Georgia.
That confidence Allen showed left an impression on the young player who didn’t arrive with recruiting hype. Williams on Tuesday recalled his reaction to hearing Allen’s prediction.
“At the time, it felt amazing,” Williams said. “At the time, I didn’t know I would even be in this position right now, because at the time I wasn’t even playing, like I wasn’t even rotating or none of that at the time.
“But I looked up to Jonathan Allen and tried to do everything he do and imitate everything he did, so for him to say that it really gave me a little boost like he believed in me, so I had to work my butt off so I wouldn’t let him down.”
Williams had the 12th-best recruiting ranking in Alabama’s 2016 signing class. Coming from Wenonah High School, the young-looking defensive lineman first had to decommit from Auburn.
His freshman season was quiet as a redshirt player on the scout team. At the time, Tide defensive line coach Karl Dunbar called Williams “a pleasant surprise” with what he showed on the practice field.
Still, there were talented players ahead of him on the 2017 depth chart. He had not made the move inside yet so Williams was listed as third-string defensive end behind Raekwon Davis and Joshua Frazier to begin the season. Da’Ron Payne was still the guy in the middle, though his early exit created an opportunity at tackle.
A few players rotated through that position in spring practice and Nick Saban even signed a JUCO player late in the process in Tevita Musika. Williams would emerge as the leader, but it wasn’t quite so obvious he’d become such a dominant player.
Notice was served in the season opener against Louisville in Orlando. Williams recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and broke up a pass in the 51-14 blowout. That game caught the eye of another defensive lineman who had little hype early in his career.
Kentucky’s Josh Allen, the consensus All-American and national defensive player of the year winner, said he had not heard of Williams before that big night in Orlando. Allen knew they’d face the Cardinals later in the season, so he tuned in after his early game. There was Williams.
“He’s dominant,” Josh Allen said. “He’s one of the most dominant players I’ve ever seen in a long time at the nose guard position. He gets sacks. He gets tackles. He gets stops. He does a lot of things players on the front line can’t do really well.”
It only took off from the Louisville game. Playing a position not associated with big stats, Williams piled up some gaudy numbers. Through 14 games he leads the team with 17 tackles for loss with seven sacks and 12 quarterback hurries.
It thrust him into the discussion for a top-5 draft pick while being named a finalist for all the awards Jonathan Allen swept two years ago. Ultimately, Kentucky’s Josh Allen took the top national player of the year honors while Williams grabbed the Outland Trophy for top interior lineman.
And while Jonathan Allen was prophetic in the sense he predicted Williams’ rise, his understudy foreshadowed his own future to some degree.
In an interview ahead of the 2016 Peach Bowl, Williams explained what the star senior meant to him and his future.
“Jonathan Allen just basically took me up under his wing and taught me everything he knows,” Williams said in 2016, “so I can be just like him or even better than him.”