UNIVERSITY PARK — Last season Trevor Williams aspired to be in the spotlight. This season he’s expected to be a shadow.
The sophomore wide receiver-turned-cornerback is one of two new faces that will bookend the Penn State defense this fall where he and sophomore Jordan Lucas will be tasked with shutting down opposing wide receivers and helping improve a passing defense that ranked eighth in the Big Ten.
“I think that both of those kids, they developed, they prepared,” defensive coordinator John Butler said. “They’ve spent a lot of time working on their games in the offseason and then it showed on the film based on how they played last spring.”
Then, Williams measured his successes based on his catches and yards.
Now he hopes to play a shutdown role and realizes his job is done when an opposing quarterback, progressing through his reads, turns to another portion of the field, with Williams’ area being too risky to test.
“I set the standards high,” Williams said. “At wide receiver I wanted to be the best wide receiver I could possibly be. At corner I want to be the best corner I can possibly be to help the team win. That’s my only mindset.”
While Williams entered last season’s training camp as a wideout and eventually earned a good amount of playing time — he appeared in all 12 games and caught 10 passes for 92 yards — coach Bill O’Brien believed Williams could be an asset on defense.
With Stephon Morris out of eligibility and Adrian Amos moving to safety primarily, O’Brien called Williams into his office shortly after the 2012 season wrapped and had a request. How would Williams feel about playing corner?
Williams, although unfamiliar with the nuances of playing the position, never protested. His only response: “Whatever’s best for the team. I’ll try it.”
It wasn’t easy at first. In March, Williams started spring practice bouncing between offensive and defensive units. It wasn’t until the fifth practice that he was solidified as a cornerback full time.
“It started out kind of hard at first because I really wasn’t used to playing corner,” Williams said. “But a lot of film study and practice helped me get better.”
His teammate Lucas, was fairly green as well. Although Lucas also made his debut as a true freshman last season, most of his playing time came on special teams. He has a long history of playing cornerback, however, having been a defensive standout at Worcester Academy (Mass.) and New Rochelle High before that.
With the turnover at the corner position, Lucas positioned himself to take on a starting role by wowing his coaches during the spring sessions. Along with defensive end C.J. Olaniyan, Lucas was awarded the Jim O’Hora award at the Blue-White game for being the defense’s most improved players.
Lucas attributed his quick ascension to his non-stop study of film and consistent work with Morris, who often hung around after practices to mentor Lucas.
“Steph taught me how to be a worker,” Lucas said. “Every day after practice, during training camp last year he would stay and do extra five-minute footwork drills with me. He kind of had me in his back pocket to try and teach me things. ... Like a big brother. It means a lot to me because as a freshman coming in you need somebody to help you get through. Because every freshman hits a wall. When you hit that wall you need somebody to pick you back up. Mom and dad aren’t here so you need your big brother to help you.”
Now, Lucas and Williams are helping one another. Lucas said he feels Williams’ past as a wideout will help both of them.
“Transitioning from wide receiver, you kind of get a feel for what receivers like to do off the ball,” Williams said. “How they like to run their routes and what they’re thinking about pre-snap. I think playing corner, that will help me out a lot. It’s like the best of both worlds really. What makes them comfortable and uncomfortable?”
Practicing against the Big Ten’s second-best passing attack from last season of which every major target returns doesn’t hurt.
Williams admitted with a grin that Allen Robinson is the team’s toughest wideout to cover. Bringing down bigger players like tight ends Jesse James (6-foot-7, 249 pounds), Matt Lehman (6-foot-6, 260 pounds), Kyle Carter (6-foot-3, 244 pounds) and Adam Breneman (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) has been a chore, however.
“All the tight ends, they’re all horses,” Williams said. “They are also hard to cover.”
But Williams and Lucas bring size to the cornerback position that Penn State lacked last season. Although Morris, a speedster, was known for his quick feet and blazing speed, he usually gave up a few inches at 5-foot-8 to bigger targets. Da’Quan Davis, who saw time opposite Morris when Amos moved to safety on third downs, checks in at 5-foot-10 but just 164 pounds.
Williams and Lucas stand 6-foot-1 and 6-foot, respectively and weigh in at just under 200 pounds each. Lucas said one of their goals is to be feared as two of the more physical corners in the league.
That sits well with the coaching staff.
“They’re bigger,” O’Brien said. “They’re close to 200 pounds. They move well. They’ve got good speed. They’ve got the ability to change direction. They’ve got good ball skills and they’re tough and competitive.”