Tuesday, July 7, 2015

2015 Season Countdown: #54 A.J. Williams

A.J. Williams
Name: A.J. Williams
Height: 6'6"
Weight: 285 lbs.
High school: Cincinnati (OH) Sycamore
Position: Tight end
Class: Senior
Jersey number: #84
Last year: I ranked Williams #45 and said he would be a backup tight end. He started four games, making 4 catches for 33 yards (8.3 yards/catch).

Last year I discussed the sandwich intake of A.J. Williams, suggesting that he had been exchanging them for salads or perhaps an occasional cleanse. He went from over 280 lbs. as a sophomore to 263 lbs. as a junior. That's a step in the right direction for a tight end. Like watching Dan Fouts throw to Kellen Winslow, Williams caught 4 passes for 33 yards.

What will Williams do to top that? First of all, it looks like he's been topping those salads with lots of ranch and bacon. He's back up to 285 lbs. now. I am unsure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, incoming tight end Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. is up to 287 lbs., so maybe Harbaugh wants some big, beefy guys on the line to serve as de facto offensive tackles. On the other hand, Williams has never been so great at the "blocking" thing and it certainly can't help his speed, which has always been lacking. I have irrational faith hope that new tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh can mold somebody besides Jake Butt into a decent player, but I am not expecting a big breakthrough from Williams. At this point he probably won't change a great deal going into his senior season, and the Wolverines are stockpiling a variety of options at tight end. With Jake Butt fully healthy, Williams might be a "starter" in two tight end sets, but I don't think that means a great deal.

Prediction: Backup tight end


  1. After AJW's freshman season, I was under the impression that he had some sort of dirt on Borges. Never have I seen such a poor blocker get so many snaps as a blocking-specialist at UM. He literally got Trousaint murdered on every other veer option run to his side. He improved to just bad as a soph, and got a little better again as a junior. But with defenses completely ignoring him in the passing game, he is just a liability out there. UM finally wised up last year and started bringing out Magnusson as the blocking TE.

    Even if guys like Bunting, Hill, and Wheatley are not quite clicking yet, it's time for a youth movement at the position in '15. Butt already has a couple knee surgeries under his belt and is a threat to leave after this season. They need to start investing the back-up snaps in the younger guys.

    1. Last year you blamed Borges' "blind spot" (apparently Nuss had the same one), claimed the offense failures were heavily to blame on Williams, and thought a DE would take his position. But Williams more or less stuck to his same role.

      Michigan will surely use young players, but the Williams/Butt duo remains at the front of the depth chart until further notice. Bunting and Hill are promising pass-catchers but they need a ton of development as blockers and aren't viable in-line TEs yet. Wheatley might red-shirt for all we know. Etc.

    2. Nuss played AJW as a junior, which is a big difference from playing him almost full-time as a freshman. And if Butt had not injured his knee, AJW would have played a lot less last year.

      I am not telling you that I know that other guys are ahead of AJW on the depth chart (further notice?). I am stating that I would like to see them take his snaps. Young TE's play all of the time. Butt played a ton as a frosh, despite struggling with blocking at times. I am just sick of watching a blocking specialist who struggles with blocking, and think there is a strategic need to develop these younger guys for major roles in '16.

    3. I think it's the same thing - Williams played not because he was good, but because he was the best option available. I haven't noticed a big improvement - either in his play or in the level of competition for his role.

      Butt was healthy by the end of the year and Williams still played. They're barely at the same position in my eyes, moreso than boundary/field corner or free/strong safety.

      Most development will happen in practice. Other guys will get their shot, sure, but if it's 4 and goal at the MSU one, my money would be on Williams at TE.

      Anybody who is on the field in that situation is more important than #54, IMO

  2. I've been calling Williams unexceptional but underrated for a couple years now and I'll stick to that. The blocking TE position is important. Williams is the returning multi-year starter there and the only other contender is a true freshman.

    Will Harbaugh marginalize Williams role? It's certainly possible - but people theorized the same thing under Borges and Nussmeir and it never really happened.

    It's time to face reality people: AJ Williams will never be benched, never graduate, never leave, and never die. The Michigan fanbase will be cursing his mediocre blocking until the end of times.

    1. A kind of "perpetual TE motion machine," huh? :-)

  3. It appears there's going to be something like 5 RBs ahead of a starting TE with no real backup. Hmmm, some of these are going to look incorrect by seasons end I think.

    RE: his backup -- I do wonder if they'll try using a 6th OLmen (or Pallante if he develops) in some goalline situations.

    1. I assume this is a function of how the list is conceived; namely, this is about how much the loss of a given player will hurt the team. Williams isn't much of a threat to catch the ball and has been a pretty bad blocker, so he's really not much of a positive presence on the field. There might be limited back-ups behind him (throw an OL out there to block if needed and there are plenty of young pass-catcher types to fill in), but he's not much of a positive contributor when he's on the field. If he were to go down with injury, the offensive drop off will probably be minimal.

      As for none of the stable of RBs showing up yet...I have to assume that's because right now that whole position group is a total crap shoot. It's hard to anticipate which guy (or committee) is going be the engine in the running game.

    2. If you have 5 good options at RB you're not going to miss one of them if they go down. If you have 1 not so good option at blocking TE you're not going to fall apart if they go down but said player will be missed, you may alter your play-calling, etc.

      I get that people are dissatisfied with Williams (I am too) but we're talking a guy who has been seeing the field consistently for 3 years now. If Michigan had better options I think they would have played them by now.

      The crapshoot element is valid - how do you rank a guy who has a 10% chance of making a huge impact vs a guy with a 90% chance of making a small impact. That's entirely subjective. But Higdon got ranked a long time ago and this list has valued special teams contributors relatively highly in the past.

      Williams is more than that, and has no proven backup. He should be a lot higher IMO.

    3. Williams is not good at football. Or at least not yet. Other guys are more valuable because they can do a variety of things and/or they have a chance to be good and/or because of the way they will be deployed.

      Also, these running backs have injury problems (Green, Isaac, Johnson all have injury histories). I doubt we're going to get through a season with the whole bunch of them healthy. Butt and Hill have injury histories, too, but Williams is more replaceable than those two, which is why he's here at #54.

    4. I disagree. The production of Green and Smith is nearly indistinguishable, and Drake Johnson looked like he might surpass either of them. To this group we're adding Higdon and have a couple jumbo backs that Harbaugh might like to throw out there too. I don't see any of them putting much of dent into Michigan's chances of winnings if they go down because they are easily replaced.

      I think the Williams point is already well established. No one thinks he's great. The question is if he is replaceable. My argument is that if Michigan had that guy they would have used him already. He played plenty last year even with Hill and Butt healthy. The counter argument is new coaching means new roles and a true freshman (Wheatley).

      Both might be valid, but I don't about the rest of you guys but I'm weary of "new coaching will address this" arguments after the last decade of Michigan football. I'm also weary of true freshman coming into a position that is 90% blocking. In other words I'll believe Williams is getting marginalized when I see it.

    5. I don't really see Butt or Hill as replacements for Williams' role as an in-line blocking specialist. I see the postion/role more like a FB or jumbo short-yardage RB. You're not an every down player, but you have an important role in 2TE packages. I see a 6th OL as more competition than I do a pass-catching TE. Sure, Williams as a potential depth option behind those guys (in that he can catch passes), but that's not really his true position. It's kind of like a nickel CB in that way. Some nickels can play CB in a pinch but you don't want them on the outside every down. They're specialists. That's Williams.

      Hill is too small to be a blocking TE at 6'2/250. Butt's taller but weighs less. I'm just not sure that smaller and thiner TEs can play Williams' role and I think the last few years have shown us that.

    6. You mean like Courtney Avery and Delonte Hollowell were specialists? Yeah, I'm not interested in that kind of "specialist." Butt is plenty big enough to get the job done. Meanwhile, Michigan also has a guy who's 270+ in Poggi and a guy who's 280+ in Wheatley, Jr. So I'm not really worried about that "blocking TE specialist" gig.

    7. You're right that the production of Green and Smith is rather indistinguishable so far. But when one or two of those guys go down with an injury, the second or third or fourth guy needs to step up. The jury's out on Higdon. You keep bringing him up, but if the whole crew is indistinguishable from each other (meaning Higdon isn't significantly better than the other guys), then there's no reason to burn his redshirt. Personally, I'm not high on Higdon, and neither were the recruiting services. That's why he's low on the list.

    8. Hollowell - yes, he was a specialist who was solid at nickel but bad anywhere else (like Williams). Avery - Sort of. Avery seemed best suited for the slot but was more of a utility guy. He saw time at safety, outside corner, etc. and wasn't bad. I know you're not a big fan of this type of player, but I see them as very valuable. We've seen how bad things can get when you don't have a viable option to pull in (2013 OL, 2009 DB). That's where you start blowing red-shirts and scrapping gameplans.

      Butt's a nice versatile player (and clearly far better than Williams overall) but asking him to be a 6th OLmen (as the blocking TE is supposed to be) is like asking Vincent Smith to be your goaline power back. Williams has 30 pounds on him. Poggi has never played a snap of college football at TE and same goes for Wheatley, who might red-shirt. Theres a chance these kids block like Devin Funchess.

      I feel like this is a mantra that Michigan fans need to repeat sometimes: Just because an incumbent sucks, doesn't mean his potential replacements aren't a huge downgrade. (See: Morris, Shane).

      As for RBs, I appreciate that there is a desire to rotate and one could get hurt. I buy the argument that the #2 RB is more important than say the #2 FS. But you're still talking about a position with 3 proven players, former starters, and overall an indistinguishable trio (if you include Johnson). Even if two of our top 3 backs went down one week you could just go the "primary ball carrier" route and load up the lead back with carries. That's often a coach's preference anyway. Gearhart got the bulk of carries at Stanford and his backup got mostly scraps in meaningful games. Perry, Ringer, etc.

      So, to get to the 4th string guy mattering you need 2 injuries to the top 3. If you use the "what if 2 guys get hurt" argument then you can make almost anybody seem relevant. DL rotate too, etc.

      As for Higdon, I get that you don't like him due to rankings and the online vids. Fair enough. I think he should be viewed as the #4 back at worst because he was hand-picked by this staff, but reasonable minds may disagree about true freshman. The thing is that RBs generally are what they are more or less, so there's not much reason to red-shirt him if he can't compete for carries among an unexceptional group of backs.

    9. You might start scrapping gameplans, but redshirts aren't really a concern. I doubt Wheatley redshirts, and the rest of the guys have already redshirted (except Butt and Williams, who are shoo-ins to play). So that's not really an issue. And I don't see a huge difference between playing Hollowell or throwing in a guy like Terry Richardson, Dymonte Thomas, etc.

      You're exaggerating when you're talking about Butt and Vincent Smith. At least I hope you are.

      Your mantra doesn't really have a place here. There are other options, and they are not as big of a dropoff as Gardner to Morris was. I have a feeling that if Williams were to roll an ankle and be replaced by Henry Poggi, we would not be very disappointed by the end of the year.

      Higdon was "hand picked" by the staff when Mike Weber was on the fence between Ohio State/Michigan, when Corey Dauphine turned them down, when they couldn't reel in Dexter Williams, etc. Literally, he was offered 4 days before National Signing Day when the staff had been evaluating players for a full month, knowing full well that they did not have a RB in the class. He was "hand picked" in the same way that Dennis Norfleet was, essentially a "what the hell, let's see what happens" offer. I'm not saying Higdon is going to be a career backup or marginal player (he could be good, I guess) but let's not pretend that the coaches were gung-ho about him from the moment they were hired.

    10. I'm anti-red-shirt in general, but even I hate burned redshirts for talented athletes with high upside who aren't better than a replacement-level veteran or walk-on. This happens when coaches are grasping at straws.

      I think the gap between Toussaint/Rawls and Smith on short-yardage carries is smaller than the gap between Butt and Williams functioning as an OLmen - which is what they do in those situations.

      I think you're wrong about Poggi, just like you were wrong about Heitzman passing Williams over. Switching to a new position is hard. Poggi could get there after a lot of practice time, but not this year. Again, I don't think Hoke is that inept as a coach to keep playing Williams if there are better options available. I do think Wheatley will get a shot, but Poggi isn't as big and will be brand spanking new. Highly unlikely he can match a senior proven to be at least serviceable.

      Re: Norfleet/Higdon...If you're going to go the "this guy wasn't Plan A" argument -- that applies to 95% of the roster.

      Norfleet was a local kid openly begging for a Michigan offer all along. Higdon was a guy down in Florida that they had to recruit and flip from another Big 10 school. I get what you're saying, but uh... Norfleet made the All Conference freshman team. I'm sensing your point isn't that Higdon will do that.

      My point is not that Higdon is the best RB Harbaugh's laid eyes on - it's that the other guys were all Hoke recruits that he never offered. Maybe he would have, maybe he wouldn't have, but Higdon's the only player on the fall roster that he did. Furthermore we KNOW that none of those other guys is a stud. Higdon probably isn't either but he doesn't have to be to beat out Green/Smith/Johnson.

  4. Anyone know when fall camp begins?