Outland Trophy history: Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Alabama, 2018 recipient

This is the 13th in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020.  From 1946 to 2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.

(Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams was selected No. 3 overall by the New York Jets in the 2019 NFL Draft. He played 13 games as a rookie, making 28 tackles, registering 2.5 sacks and collecting a sack. Last season with the Jets, Williams made 55 total tackles (32 unassisted). He had 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.)   

By Gene Duffey, Author

It is a short hop down Interstate 59 from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, Alabama–just 57 miles southwest to the exit at McFarland Boulevard. Although almost neighbors, that distance meant worlds apart to a young Quinnen Williams.

The promising defensive lineman from Birmingham’s Wenonah High School took official visits to Auburn and Mississippi. He committed to Auburn.

Then, Alabama’s Nick Saban called with a scholarship. The King of college football was offering the keys to the castle. Talk about an offer too good to refuse.

Williams, who would go on to claim the Outland Trophy at Alabama in 2018, was a quiet kid, unusual for a position where ferocity is considered a key ingredient.

 “He was in the shell a little bit (when he arrived), but he was a good football player,” said Karl Dunbar, Alabama’s defensive line coach at the time.

Quinnen wasn’t shy by nature. There was a reason for that shell. His mother, Marquischa, a first-grade teacher, died of breast cancer Aug. 10, 2010 when he was only 12. She was just 37.

Losing a mother at any age is difficult. When one is 12, it makes it even tougher.

Marquischa Williams was an Auburn fan. Quinnen’s older brother, Quincy, played linebacker at FCS Murray State and was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 “Quinnen took it the hardest,” Quincy told Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated about Marquishca’s passing. “He was a momma’s boy, the one with the big heart. The only person he talks to about it is me. When we do talk, I let him know every single time how proud she is looking down at us.”

Quinnen Williams accepts the Outland Trophy.

Quinnen, the second of four children, felt he was closer to his mother than his two brothers or sister. He felt as if he was her confidant.

 “She’d tell me everything before she told anybody else,” Quinnen said in an interview with ESPN. “She kept a smile on her face 24/7.

 “My Mom taught me a lot of fundamental stuff, a lot of things I respect, like discipline. She was an educator. I believe she’s leading me. Everything I do I think what my mom would think about it.”

Quinnen was with his mother at the end.

 “I was the last one to talk to her,” Quinnen said in the ESPN interview. “She wasn’t smiling no more. She told me, ‘Quinnen, you’re the one who’s got to take care of everybody (in the family). You’re the one who’s going to make sure everybody’s all right. I need you to do that.’”

Then Marquischa Williams was gone. .

Quinnen was named after an uncle, who had also played on the defensive line at Wenonah High.

He kept on playing football after his mother passed, but he shut down socially, except for the occasional chat with his brother.

 “I didn’t talk to nobody for a long time,” he said. “That would change when I got to Alabama.”

The Crimson Tide also recruited Raekwon Davis, a massive defensive tackle from Mississippi, that same year. Davis, a four-star recruit, was considered the bigger name. ESPN ranked Davis No. 83 nationally among all high school players. Williams was ranked No. 236.

 “(Quinnen) was a little undersized when he first got there, about 275, 280,” Dunbar said of Williams’ arrival at Alabama. “I wanted to play him (as a true freshman). Once Raekwon Davis became eligible, we decided to redshirt Quinnen. We had older guys in front of him. Nick is a size and speed guy. He doesn’t care how many stars you are.”

Although Quinnen would not play as a true freshman, he began to make his mark soon after practice began.

Dunbar said that a “switch turned on” for Williams.

Playing on the scout team, Williams and Davis began disrupting Alabama’s No. 1 offense. Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s offensive coordinator at the time, finally complained to Dunbar.

 “Kiffin said you’ve got to do something about those guys,” remembered Dunbar. “We can’t block them.”

Although Williams didn’t play in any games that season, he improved tremendously. He was often matched against Jonah Williams, an outstanding offensive tackle and no relation, in practice. It was no coincidence.

 “We try to get our best players to play against our best players (in practice),” said Dunbar. “You’ve got good guys on each side of the ball.”

Jonah Williams ended up being chosen 11th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, the same year that Quinnen went No. 3 overall to the New York Jets.

While Quinnen Williams redshirted in 2016, watching the Tide roll to 14 straight victories before losing to Clemson in the final minute of the National Championship Game, Davis appeared in seven games as a true freshman.

Jonathan Allen was Alabama’s star defensive lineman that season, going to the Washington Redskins in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Then DaRon Payne, another Birmingham native, was the bulwark of the 2017 defensive line for Alabama, also going to the Redskins in the first round of the draft in 2018.

 “I had to back up guys who were better, guys who are in the NFL now,” Quinnen said of players such as Allen and Payne. “I did everything I could at Alabama.”

 Jonah Williams, also in Quinnen’s class, quickly worked his way into the starting lineup at offensive tackle.

Quinnen Williams and Davis were roommates that first year, but not always the best of friends in terms of football. Quinnen was not afraid to prove his toughness.

 “They got into it one day in the locker room after practice,” said Dunbar. “Two quick blows and Quinnen was the winner. Raekwon was 6-7, 320 pounds. Quinnen wasn’t backing down from anyone.”

Jonah and Quinnen Williams couldn’t have been more different. Jonah was white and from Folsom, California, more than 2,300 miles from Tuscaloosa. They became more than just teammates, playing on the opposite side of the ball and usually opposite each other.

 “I love Jonah,” said Quinnen. “That’s my brother, I say that’s my brother because his last name’s Williams and my last name’s Williams, so we’re kind of like brothers…He works his butt off.”

The pair developed into two of the three finalists for the 2018 Outland Trophy, joining Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

 “Me and Jonah go against each other every day in practice,” Quinnen said in his post Outland press conference. “We make each other better. Me and him joke about it. I know he’s proud of me winning it. If he had won, I would have been proud of him. We just hoped (the award) came back to Alabama. It starts off in the trenches every game.”

Quinnen continued to praise Jonah to Charlie Potter of Bama OnLine.

 “It just says a lot about how we battle each other in practice,” said Quinnen. “We want each other to get better, want each other to be great. Every time I go up against Jonah, I’m going to give him my best game like I’m going against another dude on another team. And he’s going to give me his best game like I’m (former Texas A&M defensive end and No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) Myles Garrett or somebody.”

Jonah Williams expressed similar respect for Quinnen to the Tuscaloosa News after the two became finalists for the 2018 Outland.

 “I think it’s really exciting for Alabama, specifically because we pride ourselves on winning the line of scrimmage,” said Jonah. “So to have two of the best linemen in the country be from each side of the ball, I think that says a lot about how we try to approach the game and win the line of scrimmage.”

Quinnen played in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2017, participating in 230 plays and making 20 tackles for the season. He also contributed on offense, blocking in the Tide’s jumbo package in goal line situations. “Every time he got in the game, he was productive,” said Dunbar.

Alabama went 13-1, then rebounded to beat Clemson and Georgia for the CFP National Championship

Shortly thereafter, Alabama moved Quinnen from defensive end to nose guard in preparation for the 2018 season. With the addition of 20 pounds, the now 295-pound Williams could stuff the opponent’s running game while remaining a relentless pass rusher.

 “The coaches never really came to me and asked me about moving inside,” he said. “It was more me recognizing that my time had come, and I was willing to play any spot to get on the field. I kept my defensive end skills and put on enough weight to handle double teams.”

Quinnen made his first start at Alabama in the 2018 season opener against Louisville. He made six tackles, 3 ½ of them for loss, and helped Alabama limit the Cardinals to 16 yards rushing.

He led Alabama with 18 ½ tackles for loss for the season, including seven sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. One of his sacks, against Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, resulted in a safety.

But there were no look-at-me dances after the sacks. Quinnen would turn his back to the play, smile, fold his arms, then shake his head slowly. “I’m just having fun with it,” he said.

Even Saban praised Quinnen.

 “I think Q probably has made as much progress as any player in our program because of his work ethic and the things that he’s done to try to improve himself,” Saban said. “He was an undersized guy that worked hard to get bigger and stronger.  He always played with a great attitude, lots of tenacity. He was a really hard worker who tried to do everything right.”

Dunbar had already moved on to become defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Williams won the Outland. But he took pride in what Williams had accomplished.

 “He was a smart player,” said Dunbar. “I knew he would be this good. I didn’t think it would happen this fast.”

Everything went perfectly for Alabama through 15 games in the 2018 season before Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence blistered the Tide secondary, 44-16, in the CFP National Championship Game.

Williams knew he had great season. Alabama quarterback Tua

Tagovailoa was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, that eventually went to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. Quinnen felt he deserved to be in New York along with Tagovailoa.        

 “It’s too much of a quarterback award,” he said to Tony Tsoukalas of BamaInsider. “The Heisman only goes to a person who touches the ball. Like if I get a whole bunch of sacks, I’m not getting the Heisman. I feel like that whoever touches the ball the most is the Heisman winner, and I feel like that’s not really fair.

 “You’ve got offensive linemen who should win the Heisman, you’ve got tight ends who should win the Heisman, D-linemen, defensive backs who should win the Heisman. It’s definitely a quarterback dominant award.”

Williams had come out of nowhere to win the Outland. He never started a game before the 2018 season. Then he was gone, ready for the NFL.