As an undrafted free agent claimed off waivers by the Rams in 2018, cornerback Darious Williams had a low profile going into this season.
“He’s certainly commanding people's attention now,” defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said.
“He’s electric,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “He’s a playmaker.”
Williams, who played high school football in Florida, returns to his home state Monday when the Rams (6-3) play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) on “Monday Night Football.”
Despite hitting numerous roadblocks on his way to becoming an NFL starter, Williams said he never doubted he would one day showcase his talent at football’s highest level. After the Rams traded cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib during last season, Williams finally got the opportunity to display his skills in games.
“It’s no surprise,” he said Friday during a videoconference with reporters. “I’ve been making plays for a while now. Just never able to put it on the field. Obviously, we had all the talent in the world here with Peters and Talib and guys like that.
“So it’s finally starting to show.”
Williams’ circuitous journey to the Rams started nine years ago.
In 2011, Williams began his college career at Division III Marietta College in Ohio. He intercepted five passes but left after one season. In 2014, Williams walked on at Alabama Birmingham, intercepted a pass and earned a scholarship for a team that also included Rams tight end Gerald Everett. But the school announced after the season that it was dropping the program.
Less than a year later, the program was reinstated — but not until the 2017 season. Williams returned home to Jacksonville and worked for a time as a flower deliveryman.
“Weddings, whatever it was,” he said.
Williams returned to Alabama Birmingham, and in his final season intercepted five passes and broke up 15 others. Still, he went undrafted and signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He played in three games on special teams before he was put on waivers and claimed by the Rams.
Williams spent nearly the rest of the 2018 season on the practice squad before playing in the season finale. His talent showed in practices, players and coaches said.
“In a good way, he was locking our guys down going back to the ’18 season on scout team,” coach Sean McVay said. “You’d almost have to tell him, ‘Hey, take it easy man. You’re going to shake our confidence going into this game.’ ”
Last season, Williams emerged as a valuable backup and started three games. He intercepted two passes. Williams said he never doubted he would make it to a team that could use his talents.
“I always had faith that something’s going to happen — and I never get caught up in … if a door closes or a door looks like it freezes that that’s the end of it,” he said. “I just always know something that’s opening, it’s something that’s coming. … It never even fazed me because I always knew I was going to have a shot.”
With the arrival of Staley as defensive coordinator this season, Williams, Ramsey and Troy Hill have played large roles in a scheme that relies heavily on multiple cornerbacks and safeties. The defensive backs have helped the Rams rank second in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense, and third in passing defense.
In the second game, Williams intercepted a pass in the end zone to prevent the Philadelphia Eagles from waging a comeback. The next week, he was penalized for pass interference on a fourth-quarter play that enabled the Buffalo Bills to set up for a game-winning touchdown.
But the next game, his interception in the final minutes clinched a victory over the New York Giants.
That was only a preamble for his performance in the 23-16 victory over the Seahawks.
Williams picked off a Russell Wilson pass in the end zone in the second quarter to stop a potential touchdown that would have tied the score. In the fourth quarter, he intercepted another pass and also tipped a pass in the end zone.
After the game, Ramsey said it was time for Williams to be recognized as “a household name,” a potential All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
“He got his opportunity to shine,” said Ramsey, the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history. “They don’t want to target me a lot?... Go the opposite way and target D-Will. He’ll make you pay.”
Williams also is increasing his value. He is earning $750,000 this season in the final year of his contract, and is set to become a restricted free agent.
But Williams is currently preparing for perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. The Buccaneers feature Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion.
Williams, as he was during his long journey to the limelight, is unfazed.
“It’s always fun to go against the best,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.