Marquis Williams sets himself apart with a ‘lion heart’

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Standing at just 5-foot-9, Marquis Williams (14) has the odds stacked against him as a defensive back. But he doesn’t let that impact his attitude, claiming he makes up for his lack of size through his “lion heart.”

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

When asked if there is any player he wanted to match up against, redshirt junior defensive back Marquis Williams did not hesitate to answer.

“I want Justyn Ross,” Williams said.

Clemson junior wide receiver Justyn Ross is widely regarded as the best receiver in the ACC, and Williams thinks he’s good enough to guard the best. But there’s a significant obstacle standing in the defensive back’s path to beat the best — Williams is more than half of a foot shorter than Ross.

The defensive back stands at just 5-foot-9, guarding players who are typically much taller than him. What sets him apart is what Williams calls his “lion heart.”

“I’m not the biggest on the field but it comes down to heart,” Williams said. “I play with all heart when I go out there. I don’t worry about size, I don’t worry about anything. I just go out there, get the call and play football.”

As an undersized defensive back, the odds were stacked against Williams coming out of Pompano Beach, Fla. But he still managed to rack up offers from multiple Power Five schools, including Clemson and Minnesota. Williams could have played for a myriad of teams in the ACC, but when it came to where he’d be playing college football, one relationship with a former Panther made Pitt stand out.

Williams and Avonte Maddox, a Philadelphia Eagles defensive back and former Panther, forged a relationship when Williams was in high school touring college football programs. Maddox also stands at just 5-foot-9 and laid the blueprint for Williams to make a name for himself in Pittsburgh and eventually the NFL.

“When I committed here I was talking to [Maddox] day in and day out,” Williams said. “We’re almost the same height, he’s got about an inch on me so I was watching his tape and asking him questions on what I can do when I get [to Pittsburgh] and how to scheme myself into the defense.”

Heading into the 2020 season, Williams found himself fighting for playing time at training camp. Williams waited for the opportunity to prove himself and when he earned playing time, he made the most of it. 

Williams didn’t do it by himself, though. The Panther defense was among the best in the country — they tallied more sacks than any team in the country and ranked No. 24 in total offense allowed. The defense fed off one another. Williams and his counterparts in the secondary forced the quarterback to hold onto the football with blanket coverage, allowing the line to put pressure on the quarterback and rack up sacks. 

The defensive line — one that had two NFL Draft picks in Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver — put pressure on ACC quarterbacks all season long. The pressure forced quarterbacks to make decisions faster than usual, leading to the defensive backs reaping the rewards of errant and rushed throws.

When Williams announced he would return to Pitt for the 2021 season, the already loaded defensive back room immediately received a boost. In a talented conference, Williams was one of four returning defensive backs who allowed less than 50% completion and less than six yards when targeted in coverage. 

Now three weeks into the season, the Panther secondary is certainly missing safeties Jason Pinnock and Paris Ford, after giving up 78 points in the last two weeks. But one thing that hasn’t wavered is Williams’ energy. Even when playing from behind, fans can see him running up and down the sidelines with energy and passion cheering on his offense. It seems Williams is one of the first to congratulate his teammates after making a play. 

“We’re a Pitt tough defense,” Williams said. “To be here and play on this defense you gotta bring that type of attitude. So everyday I pad up with my defensive players, I try to bring that toughness … I don’t care about me being small because I know what I bring to the table and I know that I’m going to play my heart out.”

Williams attributed his success this year to competition among the defensive backs at practice. Fellow defensive back M.J. Devonshire echoed Williams’ praises for his teammates.

“We’ve got one of the most talented corner rooms I’ve ever been in,” Devonshire, a redshirt sophomore, said. “Those guys push you to compete because they make plays and then you want to make plays … that goes for our whole room we’re all going in and we want to make plays and put our name on the board one day and hopefully all be drafted.”

Head coach Pat Narduzzi also mentioned that he could visibly see Williams’ attitude showing on the field. Even when it seemed a receiver beat him downfield, he wouldn’t give up and consistently closed the gap of separation — citing a play against Tennessee that impressed him.

You look at Marquis, he was behind and then he finishes,” Narduzzi said. “He’s out of phase and finishes on that big, deep play … He just finished and played great football, and that’s a heck of a play.”

At Williams’ height, in order to show off that explosive speed to close gaps and play tight coverage, he needs to put in the work to stop the nation’s best receivers. In the offseason before the 2020 season, Williams turned to a former Pittsburgh sports icon — perennial NFL All-Pro wide receiver and former Pittsburgh Steeler Antonio Brown. The two worked out together in Florida and Williams got exposure to one of the NFL’s most esteemed route runners. Williams believes competing with him was one of the reasons he was successful in 2020.

“I’d say he’s part of the reason I had a good season,” Williams said. “Everybody knows lining up in front of Antonio Brown, you’re not going to see that in the ACC everyday … he’s a great receiver. He got me mentally and physically ready for last season and it was a big help. I appreciate him so much for that.”

Now that he’s seen how the best of the best train on the offensive side of the football at the professional level, Williams believes he’s ready to take on the ACC’s best on the national stage — including Clemson’s Ross.

“[Justyn Ross is] the No. 1 receiver in the ACC right now,” Williams said. “They gotta come to Pittsburgh, they gotta come home and we play man-to-man defense. I’m ready to pad up and go against him and see what he’s got.”

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