In this latest installment of our Exit Interview series, WeAreSC's LQ Singian sits down with linebacker Thomas Williams to discuss his multi-faceted career, how he got the nickname, "The Hitman," and playing in the NFL for another Trojan, Jack Del Rio.
Talk about your decision to come to USC. What other schools did you consider?
Coming to USC, at the end of the recruiting process, it came down to USC and Notre Dame, for academics, obviously, and just the prestige of both schools. I think what helped me make my decision was just being in L.A. and it being so diverse. Graduating from here, not knowing as a freshman that I would be going to the NFL, I just felt that the networking and connections here also helped me make my decision. Coming here the coaching staff during the whole recruiting process was great. Coach Carroll, Coach Seto, Coach Holt, Coach Sarkisian, Coach Orgeron, Coach Davis, who recruited me, and being close in California, helped me make my decision easier.
Did anybody take you under his wing when you first got here?
Yeah, the linebackers, all of the older guys, Champ Simmons, Lofa Tatupu, Matt Grootegoed, Dallas Sartz, Collin Ashton, Oscar Lua, everyone made it seem like it was a family. Being 17-18 years old, coming in as a true freshman, you’re out on your own for the first time. You just have to do so many things on your own. They helped make the transition easier. There were no hard feelings as far as helping out with the defense. Just like a family, they helped us out. Next year it was Keith Rivers, and so on and so forth. We’re trying to do the same thing here in the NFL, Keith and I are giving back, coming back to explain the process, and how to buy into everything, going to class, making your workouts, and just trying to become a complete person and not just a football player.
You were part of the national title winning team that beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Describe that experience.
That was my redshirt freshman year, and my first time playing, really, that whole season, and contributing to the team and not just riding the coattails of everybody else. It was just so much fun. Going there to Miami and playing in the national championship, it was a big thing. They had Adrian Peterson and Jason White and all the big time prospects. That year was just something I will never forget, playing with Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Lendale White, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett. What it actually felt like that whole year, playing with those guys, we were undefeated, was just something that words can’t describe. We weren’t even favored to win the game, and just going out there and seeing Shaquille O’Neal, Puff Daddy and all these celebrities at the game, to see exactly how much we meant to society, to watch us play, and to feel a part of it, was unbelievable.
Early in your career you established a reputation as a special teams star, primarily on kickoff coverage. Talk about the mindset it takes to be a part of kickoff coverage teams.
I just wanted to contribute, compete and just be out there on the field and play any way I could. Coming in and playing behind Lofa and Matt, Oscar and Dallas and all these great linebackers, it was going to be a difficult to get on the field early. You’re still trying to learn your playbook as a freshman. I know I wanted to compete and play and be on the field with teammates by any way necessary, so they told me the best way to get on the field was to do special teams. The instructions are easy, run down there, hit anything in the opposite colored jersey. There is not a whole bunch of technique. You have to probably be a little bit crazy to be on special teams, running and hitting at full speed, but it is definitely fun and I look forward to doing it at the next level, too.
After the Oregon State loss in your junior year, you volunteered to move to fullback, a position that had been decimated by injuries. You said, “I never want to feel that way after a game again and if I need to switch positions to prevent that, I’ll do it.” What led to that decision and how was the experience?
I think what primarily led to it was that a few of guys on the offense, Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker and John David Booty, asked me if I would do it. At first I didn’t want to do it because I am a defensive player, although I played fullback in high school. But when you look into someone’s eyes who you truly care about and respect and they’re asking you to do something, and I could see in their eyes that they really wanted my help and we needed a fullback, I agreed. It was something new, it was challenging. And who can sit there and say they played offense and defense in the same game and made a tackle and also blocked for a touchdown, in the same game? I think it was just the competitor in me who wanted to master anything I was asked to do.
You played all three linebacker spots during your career. Talk about how that versatility and experience has helped you.
It helped me understand the defense as a whole. When you play all three positions, or numerous positions, you have to understand what is going on at all times, and not just what your role is, but what everybody else is doing. It sometimes in the beginning was a little overwhelming, but the older I got, it kind of just became natural, just because I felt that I was prepared and knew the defense so well that it was just second-nature. I think it helped me also getting into the next level, because it’s almost like I’m a three-in-one package. I can play three positions, special teams, I’m kind of a Jack of all Trades, and I think coaches really value that. I remember when I was younger being a little disappointed when I was asked to play different positions, but now I am very appreciative of what was asked of me and how it has helped me become the football player I am today.
What is your favorite on-field memory?
I would probably say the hit against Stanford my redshirt freshman year on kick offs. It was kind of when I felt like I came into my own. That’s when I got my nickname, “The Hitman.” I think that was my coming out party.
Who gave you the nickname, “The Hitman”?
Coach Carroll gave me the nickname. And after that hit, I felt like I belonged, that I was actually contributing and helping the team. I just started having so much fun after that, and gained confidence.
What is your favorite game?
My favorite game was the national championship game at the Orange Bowl. That whole week down in Miami with my teammates, the plane ride there, just being in a different environment. You’re playing video games, telling stories, you’re with the seniors who will not be back anymore, and it is kind of like a graduating party for them. And the moments. For example, after we won the game, we flew back home, and when we were taking off from Miami, Coach Carroll said he was going to go aisle surfing. Everybody looked at him like he was crazy. He put two pieces of paper underneath his feet, and as the plane was taking off, he actually surfed down the aisle! Just memories like that. It’s something I will never forget. No matter what happens, you go to a Superbowl, or playoff game, I don’t think it matches what I’ve already experienced here, especially that year alone.
Talk about playing for Pete Carroll.
Playing for Coach Carroll is unbelievable. You don’t realize exactly how good you have it until you’re leaving. Coach Carroll is an amazing guy. He talks to all of the freshmen. He knows all of our names, it doesn’t matter if you’re a first string quarterback, or the fifth string defensive tackle. He’s got an open door policy all the time. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be “competitor.” He hates to lose, whatever he’s doing. If he’s in there working out, he tries to come over and bench with us, even though he can’t do as much all the time (laughs), he tries to compete. They talk about students of the game, well Coach Carroll is really a teacher of the game, because he knows so much, offense, defense, wide receivers, secondary, linemen, everything. It was just an honor and a blessing to play for him and learn from him. The things that he instilled in me I will take with me, throughout life in general, and not just football.
Talk about playing for Ken Norton.
Coach Norton is the epitome of how a football player should be on and off of the football field. He loves the game so much. He played 13 years in the NFL and is the only person to win three consecutive Superbowls. He went to a couple of Pro Bowls, All Pro, and should be in the Hall of Fame. And he’s here coaching, and giving back to the kids. He’s definitely taught us that there is more to life than football, but you have to give everything you got to this game. Playing for him was another blessing. I think it helped me get to where I am today. He’s not just a football coach, he’s a great friend, a mentor, and I will definitely miss playing for him and just being around him. He’s one of those guys who you can just go up to his office and just talk to him about how your day is going, and everything that is going on in your life. He’s definitely instilled some things in me that will help me transition into the next stage of my life. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy, and he’ll be somebody that I will stay in touch with for forever.
What memories do you have of Mario Danelo?
Mario was somebody who, when you looked at him, when you go into the locker room, or when you go to a party, he was always smiling. He never let you have a bad day. He was one of those guys. He was amazing. He was somebody who made training camp go a lot faster, someone who you just wanted to be around, just because of his energy and how he treated everyone. He cared about everybody else so much, he will definitely be missed. I don’t think anyone will ever forget him.
Your head coach with Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio, is a former star USC linebacker. How has it been playing for him so far and what have you two talked about in regards to USC?
I’m excited to go there and play for him, especially because Trojans stick together. We are SC-linked forever. Playing for him has been a great experience. He’s taught me a lot, just how to be a pro, how to approach the game, just little tidbits like that. We’ve talked a little bit about SC days, and I know we’ll get to talk a lot more as time goes on. I’m so excited to play for him. We have Coach Kennedy Pola out there also coaching the runningbacks, and so even though I’m far away from home, it still feels like family. It being out there in Jacksonville, in the heat, you still feel like you have someone to talk to, who is from the same area you’re from. Chauncey Washington and I and the guys from the other Pac 10 schools are surrounded by the kids from the South, the SEC, so we get hazed and ragged on, all in good fun, people saying that the Floridas, the Auburns, that those schools would beat us, or that we would lose four or five games in the SEC, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that! (Laughs.) So definitely being with those guys from SC has been encouraging and comforting.
Did you graduate this past May?
Yes, I graduated with a degree in Sociology. So no matter what happens with football, I got that, and they can’t take that away.
What are you possibly looking to get into after you’re done with football?
I think I’d like to get into marketing, or be an executive at a corporation. Preferably a sporting corporation like Nike, Adidas, Reebok. I’d like to work my way up and be a CEO of a company one day.
Anything else you’d like to say to all the Trojan fans as you move on to the next level?
I just want to say thank you to all the fans. I know that wherever I go, football or non-football, that the Trojan fans will always be there. Thank you for supporting us, the team, every game. The fans don’t understand how much they mean to the game. When we go out there and play, you’re really playing for the fans. When they’re loud and cheering, they are a part of the game, too. I want to give a special thanks to the Thundering Herd. I’ll never forget them. Every time I come back to the games I’ll make sure to stop by and see them in the section and take pictures and give them all big hugs because they helped me get through some of my tough times. I’m very appreciative of them. And just for everyone who supported the Trojans, past and present, we’re in this together. We’re going to continue to try to take this thing as far as we can take it.