In what has become a normality seemingly every year, the third day of the NFL Draft generally yields a handful of overlooked prospects that go on to prosper as rookies. While these players each have their own unique stories of how they’ve attained success, they are universally connected by the common theme of overcoming some sort of adversity. Former University of Minnesota defensive back and NFL Draft prospect Chris Williamson, largely an afterthought despite a productive collegiate career, has the talent to become one of those players.
This story depicts Williamson’s winding football journey — one that ultimately led him to the doorsteps of fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Growing up in Georgia
Chris Williamson discovered his undying love for the game of football at six years old.
“I had a lot of sports to base it off of, because I played just about every sport when I was younger,” Williamson recalled. “My parents had me try everything. There was just a connection between me and football that was undeniable.”
Growing up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, Williamson began his football career as a running back in Pop Warner, before eventually making the switch to wide receiver in eighth grade.
Although it appeared all but certain that his long-term position would be wide receiver, Williamson began training with former Pro Bowl defensive back Ray Buchanan that same year, heeding advice from his father.
“My dad always wanted me to be able to do more than one thing,” Williamson said. “This way, it’s hard to keep you off the field.”
While his career at Gainesville High School got off to a roaring start as a pass catcher, to the tune of 76 receptions for 1,402 yards and 20 touchdowns, Williamson wasn’t generating much buzz in recruiting circles, and opted to transition to the defensive side of the ball for his final season.
“It was a business mindset,” Williamson acknowledged. “You can go on the street and find a six-foot wide receiver, but it’s hard to find a six-foot [defensive back] that can move really well.”
As a senior, Williamson compiled 47 tackles and an interception from his defensive back spot, and his previously lukewarm recruiting reputation soon began to ramp up significantly. In fact, the offers seemed to trickle in on a daily basis. His initial offer came from Louisiana-Monroe, but before long, Williamson suddenly had a vast assortment of institutions to pick from.
After narrowing his options to Cal, North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida, Williamson ultimately decided to attend to University of Florida, citing the opportunity to compete amongst the nation’s top talent, as well as the university’s educational pedigree, as primary reasons.
The University of Florida
While some in his position may have shied away from the competition, committing to the school that presented the quickest path to playing time, Williamson was drawn to Florida, where he competed against the likes of Vernon Hargreaves, Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor, Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye, Brian Poole, Duke Dawson, and Marcell Harris day in and day out.
Williamson didn’t figure into the defensive back rotation to start his freshman campaign, but the coaching staff found a role for him on special teams. As is the case with most young players at Florida, the coaches gradually eased him in and evaluated his response to a lighter workload before thrusting him into the rotation.
“The week I was supposed to be in the rotation,” Williamson recalled, “I was running down on kickoff and I heard my hamstring pop. It honestly sounded like a gunshot because it was so loud.”
Following a four-week absence, the medical staff cleared Williamson for football activity. Shortly after returning to the field, however, the balky hamstring popped again, effectively ending his freshman season after five games.
Hamstring injuries, as fickle as they can be, often come with varying degrees of limitations. In Williamson’s case, the injury was so severe that he initially struggled to walk. After spending a couple of months in the training room and grinding through an arduous rehab process, Williamson was finally cleared for spring ball.
The rangy perimeter defender went on to play in nine games for the Gators the following season, including his first career start in the season opener against Massachusetts. He finished with five tackles on the year.
In search of a fresh start, Williamson gravitated toward the University of Minnesota, where the defensive backs coach at the time, Maurice Linguist, recruited Williamson and his younger brother Kendall coming out of high school.
Joining the Golden Gophers
Going from the south to the midwest was an immense culture shock that Williamson wasn’t entirely prepared for.
If it ever snowed in Gwinnett County, Georgia, for example, schools would be shut down for an entire week. In Minnesota, blizzards and subzero temperatures were merely common occurrences.
“My first winter up there,” Williamson recalled, “it was late April, actually the week of our spring game, and we got hit with a 16-inch blizzard. It was the most snow Minnesota had seen in like 15-20 years. I’m on Snapchat looking at friends having pool parties at the end April. For me, at the end of April, I’m still going to class with coats, and jackets, and boots on. Some of the temperatures I saw at Minnesota I had never seen before.”
Though NCAA rules required him to sit out the 2017 season, Williamson shifted his focus toward the 2018 season, where he appeared on track to resume his football career — though recent history suggested that adversity was imminent.
Sitting atop the Gophers’ depth chart as one of the starting cornerbacks entering fall camp, Williamson suffered another hamstring injury — the same one he’d injured three years earlier at Florida. This caused him to miss the first three games of the season, before being inserted in the waning moments of a blowout loss to Maryland to log some live game reps and test the hamstring.
A few weeks later, prior to a conference clash with Illinois, Minnesota defensive coordinator Robb Smith decided to move Williamson inside at the nickel cornerback position. The game didn’t go in Minnesota’s favor, however, and Smith was ultimately relieved of his coaching duties.
Defensive line coach Joseph Rossi, who was promoted to defensive coordinator, opted to keep Williamson on the inside, due to the fact that many of the top receivers in the Big Ten lined up primarily in the slot.
“The slot is totally different, because you have to learn how to play to your leverages,” Williamson said. “I was always open to it, but it was a little frustrating with it being in the middle of the season. Once I got the hang of things, it came easy. Kind of like being on the outside, you have to figure out what works best for you. There’s not one way to play the nickel position. I went and studied guys in the NFL like Nickell Robey-Coleman, Kenny Moore, Mike Hilton, guys that have excelled at the slot position. I would look at things that they do, and try to incorporate that into my game.”
The 2019 Minnesota defense was a formidable bunch led by safety Antoine Winfield, edge rusher Carter Coughlin, linebacker Kamal Martin, and Williamson. The program enjoyed an 11-2 season under head coach P.J. Fleck, a remarkable turnaround from their 7-6 record a season ago. They took the college football world by storm following an upset victory over conference rival and the nation’s fourth-ranked team, Penn State.
“When we went into the Penn State game, we knew we were going to be the underdogs,” Williamson acknowledged. “We weren’t pressing, there was no stress on us to pull off an upset. Penn State had to come beat us, because they were the higher-ranked team. We went out there and played free, and I feel that had a lot to do with it. I’m not gonna lie, I feel like we hit Penn State in the mouth, when a lot of teams hadn’t necessarily done that before.”
Williamson, of course, played a critical role in the victory. Down 31-19 early in the fourth quarter, Penn State opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from their own five-yard line. Quarterback Sean Clifford lofted a pass to the corner for wide receiver K.J. Hamler. He never reached his intended target, however, as Williamson mirrored Hamler and got his right hand up to breakup the pass.
“K.J. had a cut-split,” Williamson recalled, “so, at that point, I’m thinking fade ball the whole time. I was outside leverage, he tried to give me a little move to the inside to create some room for the quarterback, and I was able to stick with him the whole time. I kind of expected the fade ball to come right there, I figured they’d try to put the ball in their best player’s hands on fourth-and-goal, and I knew I had to man up for my team and go out there and make a play.”
Playing in all 13 games (nine starts), Williamson recorded 57 tackles (four for loss), 2.5 sacks, three passes defended, and an interception.
East-West Shrine Bowl
On the heels of a triumphant season that culminated in a 31-24 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Gopher standouts Tyler Johnson, Rodney Smith, Carter Smith, Kamal Martin, and Williamson received invites to attend the 95th annual East-West Shrine Bowl in St. Petersburg, Florida.
While those that participated in the prestigious all-star game represented themselves admirably, perhaps no defensive back helped himself more than Williamson. The lengthy six-foot, 205-pound cornerback won the majority of his one-one-one matchups due to sound technique, eye discipline, exceptional click-and-close ability, with which he closely mirrored wide receivers throughout the entirety of their patterns, and physicality at the catch point.
“It was fun,” Williamson said. “When I went down there, they had me in the slot and on the outside. That week, I was most comfortable in the slot, because it’s what I had been doing all season. I was able to make some plays both inside and outside, but it definitely took me some time to get used to being back on that island, because it was something that I hadn’t necessarily done for awhile.”
Chris Williamson’s NFL Outlook
When the NFL Scouting Combine’s official list of participants was released to the public in February, Williamson’s name was noticeably omitted.
“I used it as motivation to get back to work,” Williamson said. “As a college kid, it was a dream of mine to go to the NFL Combine, and not being able to do that is something that drives me.”
Using the extra time to attack his pre-draft training at Exos in Frisco, Texas, Williamson was poised to turn heads at Minnesota’s Pro Day, reaffirming to scouts and decision makers alike that he deserved to hear his name called in April.
Given the recent pandemic that is currently sweeping the globe, however, Williamson, along with many NFL hopefuls, won’t be afforded that opportunity.
“I understand everything that’s going on,” Williamson said. “I didn’t dwell and mope because my Pro Day was cancelled; it was more like, ‘What’s next?’ I can only control the things that I can control. When you sit around and dwell on those things, you start to lose focus.”
Though his once-promising pre-draft cycle has since been marred by uncontrollable variables, one thing that Williamson has control over, is seizing every opportunity he is afforded — and whenever his number has been called throughout his collegiate career, the Georgia native has delivered.
Not only has Williamson grown tremendously on the field, but off of it as well. Gone are those reoccurring hamstring injuries that plagued him early in his career. He’s learned the value of properly taking care of his body and investing in himself for sustained success.
On the field, Williamson’s positional versatility and football intelligence still reign supreme, and figure to be the intangibles that enable him to carve out a long, prosperous career at the next level.