Quinnen Williams wedges himself into a teal vinyl booth in an IHOP in Homewood, Alabama. The maneuver takes some creativity, a touch of contorting. He’s not big for an NFL-bound defensive tackle; some might even call him — oh, the horror! — a tad undersized. But he’s 6-foot-3 and about 300 pounds. He’s still a massive human.
Maybe that’s why he catches so many second looks this afternoon. It’s a Sunday in early April and it feels possible that every churchgoer in the greater Birmingham area has flocked to this very IHOP to eat their post-church omelet with a, ahem, “side” of unlimited pancakes. And practically all of them are stealing sideways glances in Williams’ direction. Maybe it’s because he’s massive, or maybe it’s his big, round baby face — seriously, it’s almost a perfect circle. When he smiles, which is often, his cheeks quadruple in size, like he has stuffed a pair of tennis balls in there. “And them braces don’t help,” says his grandmother, Yvarta Henderson.
She’s not wrong. After Williams folds himself into his side of the booth and spots IHOP’s laminated specials menu, proudly broadcasting its newest sugar blitzkrieg — Oreo Oh My Goodness Pancake Combo — he smiles big and wide, revealing a mouth full of metal. He loves Oreos, even became a bit of a viral sensation during the NFL scouting combine when he copped to inhaling a handful of Double Stufs before he ran his 4.83-second 40, the fourth-fastest time by a 300-plus-pound defensive linemen in the past 16 years. In his delight, he looks like a very big, very jolly tweenager.
“I get that a lot,” he says. “Like, how old are you!? When I meet NFL guys, ‘How old are you?!‘ They think I’m like 17!” Williams has a thick, southern twang, fine-tuned throughout the 21 years he has spent first in Birmingham and then Tuscaloosa, and he stretches words and letters like taffy. N-F-Ay-El, he says.
He comes to IHOP a lot, sometimes here, near Birmingham, when he’s home visiting his grandparents and father and brothers and sister. Sometimes back in Tuscaloosa, where he spent the past three years crawling, then whizzing, up Nick Saban’s mythical depth chart — that’s where he took the 49ers when they came calling. At this point, he’s a regular in both, so the waitstaff and his fellow regulars have come to recognize him.
“Oh, yeah,” he nods. “This is my spot right here.”
And today, it seems everyone in IHOP would like a word with Quinnen Williams.
“Excuse me,” an older woman across the aisle waves from her perch in a wheelchair. “What are those tennis shoes?” She points to Williams’ electric blue sneakers.
Williams, never one to extricate himself from some friendly banter, tells her they’re Balenciaga. “It’s European,” he explains.
“Can I ask you how much they are?”
“A couple hundred.”
“Oh, that’s too rich for my blood!”
Not five minutes later, an older gentleman on his way out of the restaurant stops at the table and leans over, and practically onto, Williams.
“What position do you play?” he asks Williams, dispensing with pleasantries.
“Nose guard,” Williams tells him.
“Oooooh, you be having some fun!”
Williams laughs, then nods in agreement. “Yes, sir.”
And he is. Williams is having a blast. This time last year, he watched the NFL draft in his dorm room, dining on Domino’s pizza and wings. He had yet to make a single start for the Crimson Tide — had logged only 151 defensive snaps all season long, in fact. Now he’s here, days away from hearing his name called in Nashville, Tennessee — in all likelihood, among the first five players Roger Goodell invites to the stage. Perhaps among the first three.
Truly, since that Friday in January when he stood at a podium and announced that he’d be leaving Alabama after his breakout redshirt sophomore season — 18.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, one Outland Trophy and 623 defensive snaps — he’s had nothing but fun.
In the space of three months, he has enlisted Young Money to see to his branding and marketing. (“I signed with, like, basically Drake and Nicki Minaj. That’s crazy.”) He has wandered around the Cardinals’ locker room, eyeing Larry Fitzgerald‘s locker. (“I was mind-blown.”) He’s visited cities he’d only ever seen on screen. (“You ever watch movies based in San Francisco? It’s amazing. It’s just like that.”) And he has moved to Los Angeles — the Calabasas area, more specifically — to train for the combine.
He did not, however, spot any Kardashians. “I lived in Thousand Oaks,” he says. “They live in, like, multi-Thousand Oaks.”
But Quinnen Williams is having more than just a moment. He’s arriving at the exact right time.
LATE LAST SEASON, Williams’ phone glowed with an incoming text message. Daron Payne, his old teammate on the defensive line and the man chiefly responsible for keeping Williams confined to those 151 snaps in 2017, wrote to weigh in on Williams’ latest performance (two tackles in the backfield, one sack).
Bro, you might be better than me.
Williams picked up his phone, a rejoinder at his fingertips.
I’m for sure better than you.
What a time to maybe — or for sure, depends on who you ask — be better than Payne, last year’s 13th overall pick. Because had Williams been born 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, in any other era, really, the reality is this: He probably would never have been placed along the interior, at defensive tackle, in the first place.
He’s not a Vince Wilforkian boulder. He’s not a 330-pound Refrigerator Perryesque black hole, where light — and opposing offenses’ ground games — goes to perish. He had to put on close to 20 pounds this past offseason just to join the 300 club and make the shift inside, for goodness sake. Williams doesn’t look or perform like defensive tackles of the past. He looks like the future.
Wilfork was phenomenal against the run. (Or, as Williams proclaims, “phe.nom.en.al.”) Perry was too. But if you’re a defensive tackle in 2019 and you are simply a space-eater, even an exceptional one, if all you can do is play early downs to clog lanes and snuff out the run, you’re something worse than a liability.
“The slower, heavier, not-in-phenomenal-shape guy?” Mike Giddings says. “He’s obsolete.”
Giddings is the president of Proscout Inc. and advises nearly half the league’s teams on talent evaluation. When asked what a modern-day defensive tackle should look like, he offers this:
“When he looks like Quinnen Williams, you get excited.”
Modern-day defensive tackles, like Williams, can’t just swallow the run; they must penetrate the backfield with aplomb. Modern-day defensive tackles, like Williams, can’t just skate by on old-school technique; they must develop faster, more explosive, cutting-edge moves.
“The big jumbos, the walruses, you know the big old hogs in the middle?” says Chuck Smith, a nine-year NFL pro and current pass-rush specialist who has trained with artists such as Aaron Donald and Von Miller and Geno Atkins. “They’ve all been taught to push, to just bull rush. But if you bull rush, that takes too much time to get to the quarterback.”
The game today is too fast and too short and too precise to not demand a defensive-tackle glow-up.
Case in point: When Pro Football Focus started tracking time in the pocket in 2011, only seven starting quarterbacks held the ball for fewer than 2.5 seconds on more than half of their dropbacks. Last season? Fourteen.
Combine that speed with the zeal with which current offenses embrace efficiency — quarterbacks are throwing shorter (7.9 air yards per attempt in 2018, the lowest rate in the past 13 seasons and nearly a full yard less than the league’s average in 2006) and connecting more (19 quarterbacks completed 65 percent of their throws or better last year, compared to eight just a decade ago) — and teams are left with no choice.
They must demand defensive tackles reimagine how they should look. Perhaps a “slim, lean, athletic” 300 pounds, to use Williams’ own elegant spin.
“Quinnen Williams is the new-school next generation of pass-rush D-linemen,” Smith says. “He’s big enough to do everything that every tackle has done in history. But the difference is, he’s highly skilled.”
“He is the new breed of hybrid that can do it all.”
BEFORE HE COULD do it all — Chuck Smith’s words, but Williams’ too; “I’m the best, defensive line-wise, in the draft because I’m like a Swiss Army knife” — he couldn’t break through. Before he was the right man in the right place at the right time, Williams felt wronged.
“He smiles and laughs about every doggone thing,” says Henry Pope, the athletic director for Birmingham’s city schools. Pope coached Wenonah High’s defensive line when Williams came through. “I’ve never seen him frown. I’m thinking about it. I’ve never seen him frown.”
“Oh, I remember one time,” Ronald Cheatham interjects.
Cheatham has been Wenonah’s head football coach for 30 years, and it shows. His office, a small, dim cave in the field house, is a museum of relics. A towering stack of old VHS tapes lines one shelf in his bookcase; leaning against that bookcase, a handful of trophies mingle with old, propped-up Coach of the Year plaques. Amid the clutter, Cheatham and Pope hold court, jumping in to end the other’s sentences, hooting and hollering because they already know how their stories end. They already know the punchlines. It’s part buddy comedy, part call and response.
Pope: “The Carver game?”
Cheatham: “The Carver game.”
Pope: “The CARVER game!”
Cheatham: “Go ahead and tell it, Coach.”
It was the final regular-season game of Williams’ sophomore season, and Wenonah was losing a game it had no business dropping. Meanwhile, Williams was buried beneath an onslaught of double-teams. He was still getting used to that — the attention, the respect that commanded a game’s worth of double-teams — and in the third quarter, well, he broke.
Pope: “I’m like, ‘Everybody get to the sideline!’ And Quinnen, this Big Baby, is crying. He was boo-hooing!”
Cheatham: “I thought he had broke his arm! I thought something was hurt, the way the tears were flowing!”
Nothing was bruised but Williams’ ego. He hated those double-teams so much he cried. He cried so much, his older brother Quincy, a senior on the team, laid into him. He laid into Williams so much, after that season, Williams walked into Cheatham’s office and promised he’d never let anything like that happen again.
“This gonna sound like made-for-TV crap, I’m fixin’ to say,” Cheatham warns. “But this is the truth. He came in here, knocked on my door, sat down and said, ‘Coach, I need to grow up, don’t I?’ And I went, ‘Oh, hell y- — I mean, heck yeah.'”
The coaches say that was Williams’ inflection point. The proverbial moment he began to earn those Division I offers — among them, Auburn, where he originally committed, and Alabama, where he ultimately landed.
Sitting in an altogether different kind of office — the kind with gleaming floors and buttery, brown leather sofas — Nick Saban offers what, in Nick Saban-adjusted metrics, amounts to effusiveness. The Alabama coach is settled in an arm chair, 20 or so feet from his desk and a rack displaying his favorite practice hat, the straw one with its crimson band. He leans forward, lording over the coffee table in front of him that hosts an array of jewelry boxes, all open to showcase the team’s prodigious collection of bling amassed over the past decade, like the world’s flashiest diamond store.
“He was just hard to block,” he says. “And, really, if you’re a defensive lineman, that’s probably the most complimentary thing that anybody could say about you.”
When Williams first arrived in Tuscaloosa, he wasn’t the Tide’s most lauded recruit, but he was, by all accounts, pretty unblockable even then. Saban offers a thin wisp of a smile, thinking on Williams’ scout-team days. He was a pest. He gave the first-team offensive line fits by getting in the backfield — and he let them know it too.
“I like that,” Saban says. “I like the competitive spirit.” (He might be indulging in a bit of revisionist history. Mario Cristobal, an assistant head coach at Alabama in those days, says Williams was the kind of guy who got him in trouble. “There was a question often asked, ‘Why can’t we block 92?’ Now the entire world knows why we couldn’t block 92.”)
The world, of course, wouldn’t know for a few more years. Sure, he was a scout-team headache. Yes, he giddily told Cheatham just before Alabama played USC in the opening game of his freshman year that he was playing with the second team already. Daron Payne, a Birmingham native like Williams, even confided in their mutual trainer back home that Williams, a freshman at the time, was the best pass-rusher the Tide had.
But, like most blue-chips who come through Tuscaloosa, he had to wait. A redshirt postponed his first year. A man named Daron Payne impeded his second. Then, at last, a clearing of the decks in his third year, his redshirt sophomore season. He took over at nose tackle after Payne’s departure, then took over as starter, then took over game, after game, after game.
“Did I ever think he’d be one of the guys that people view as, you know, one of the top picks in the draft?” Saban says. “He probably exceeded our expectations from that standpoint.”
Still, NFL coaches ask Williams if that lone, sensational year was enough of a sample size. Teams interrogate him on whether his single season in the sun was an aberration. The NFL, in truth, has not often shown love to one-year starters in the first round. Especially not to one-year starters in the top five of the first round. Especially, especially not to one-year starters without QB listed next to their names.
“But it’s not a one-hit wonder thing,” Williams says. “It’s just a one-hit, one-opportunity thing.”
WILLIAMS IS ELBOW deep in his full stack of pancakes — original buttermilk, two orders of sausage patties; he begged off the Oreo combo because “naw, too much sugar” — when he puts his arms up on the table and says, “Listen.”
Talking to Quinnen Williams is a little like sitting around a campfire for story time with Quinnen Williams. “Listen,” he’ll start, scooting in closer to make sure you do, then he’s off to the races.
Listen, he was so afraid to show his grandmother the new tattoos he got on his left arm. He calls her Ms. Henderson, a holdover from the days he went to the same elementary school she taught at, and where she insisted that all her grandchildren call her by her professional title on school grounds. Williams practically grew up in Ms. Henderson’s house, a compact, red brick one-story at the top of a sloping hill in southwest Birmingham, where he would go every day after school, to do his homework and wrestle with his brothers and help make dinner. (He was a Cooking Channel devotee.) She had always warned him: No tattoos until you have a job.
By then, he wasn’t that far off from joining the 49ers or the Jets or the Raiders — he figured he had waited long enough. And they weren’t even his first tattoos; just his most visible ones to date. Regardless, he drove straight from the tattoo parlor to Ms. Henderson’s house to explain himself.
“She was like, ‘Quinnen, you got tattoos!?” he says. His eyes are saucers at this point, perhaps to properly relay his fear in that moment. “And I’m like, ‘Uhhhh, let me just tell you what it means.'”
In the end, Ms. Henderson came around to his new body art. Most of his new ink was in honor of his mother, Marquischa, after all. She died after battling breast cancer almost nine years ago, when Williams was 12. Marquischa went into the hospital that summer and never came out, and Williams, to this day, can’t really bring himself to talk about those hazy, dizzying days when the family lost her. Not even with older brother Quincy.
“I was the mama’s boy,” he says. “I call it the favorite child.”
So the favorite child got two breast cancer ribbons tattooed on his arm. And an angel with wings wearing a No. 92 jersey.
“She never got the chance to wear my jersey or come to my games,” he explains.
She never got the chance to see all this happen. She never got the chance to see how quickly the tectonic plates of his life shifted. How one day he was an anonymous interior lineman for the Crimson Tide just clamoring for some playing time, any playing time, and practically the next, he was one of the draft’s most coveted prospects.
That’s the part that still throws him. It’s not so much that he didn’t expect to be here one day; it’s that he didn’t expect to be here this day. He was floored enough by it all that, after declaring for the NFL in a media conference in January, he sat in his car for nearly 30 minutes, idling in the athletic facility’s parking lot, a bit shell-shocked. “As soon as I left the building,” he says, “the wind started blowing.”
He was dropping out of school?! To go to the NFL?!
Since then, Williams hasn’t been stumped by much in his plethora of meetings with teams across the league — Tampa Bay later today after IHOP; Jacksonville a few days later; New York a few days after that — but the one question he hasn’t mastered answering is this: What is your goal for next year?
He has a bucket list, of course. In football: By the end of his career, log at least one sack against every other team. Outside of football: Open a Chick-fil-A franchise.
But one year from now? He barely saw this past one coming. He can’t quite wrap his brain around what’s next.
As though she was summoned, the IHOP hostess, a woman named Zaria, stops by Williams’ table on her way back to the hostess stand. Everyone would like a word.
She can prophesy, she tells him. She can see what’s in store for him. Williams, as always, is game.
“Something’s wrong with your foot,” she begins.
“I just got a blister!” he says. Eyes like saucers, again.
“And go ahead and finish your arm, if you want to.”
“I got to finish up this tattoo!” he says, gesturing to his left arm.
“And don’t hire that manager,” she adds.
“Listen, this is so crazy. I just interviewed a manager yesterday. How did she know?”
It’s hard to discern whether Williams really believes Zaria or is just humoring her, ever the gracious conversationalist.
“People recognize me everywhere I go now,” Williams says. “I’m a star. It’s crazy.”
Does he like it?
He smiles his metallic smile. “Oh, I love it.”