By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — It was the kind of scene that, in past seasons, could have symbolized the chaos of a sinking football program.
But when University of Washington senior safety Nate Williams grabbed the facemask of teammate Nate Fellner and screamed at him after a broken play early in the third quarter of Saturday’s 41-20 win over Syracuse, it was more about perfection than dysfunction.
“I love it,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said of Williams’s in-your-face leadership style. “He’s great. He’s a great senior leader. Him and (linebacker) Mason (Foster), but especially Nate — you really feel him out there. He’s doing a magnificent job, a team captain.”
And teammates love having Williams out there, too — even when they’re getting chewed out.
Fellner, who was out of position on the third-quarter play that led to Williams’s tirade, held no bitter feelings after Saturday’s game.
“Whew,” Fellner said, shaking his head when the incident was brought up in the post-game press gathering. “You’ve got to give respect to the seniors. They’ve been here four years, they’ve earned their credit, and they can do stuff like that. You just learn from your mistakes and get better.”
As one of two defensive captains, Williams has already helped fill the void of graduated seniors Donald Butler and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim this season.
Part of Williams’s success as a leader is that he walks the walk before he talks the talk. He started out Saturday’s game by chasing down a Syracuse return man on the opening kickoff, catching him from behind near midfield and preventing a possible touchdown. On the first play from scrimmage, he stopped Syracuse running back Delone Carter for a three-yard loss. And then just before the snap on second-and-13, Williams saw Fellner drop into deep coverage and screamed at him to move up and to his left. Fellner was in perfect position to make the tackle for a short, four-yard completion to set up third-and-long.
Williams finished with seven tackles and a pass breakup and seemed to be around the ball all afternoon. On a defense that lost its top two players from last season’s team to the NFL, Williams’ playmaking and leadership have been a huge asset.
“That’s just how I like to play,” Williams said late Saturday night. “I really take pride in hustling all the time. I’m around the ball because I hustle. I’m not out there like, ‘Oh, no, Te’o’s not here, so I’ve got to make this extra play.’ I’m doing my one job, and when I take care of that and see action away (from the ball), I’m running. That’s how I feel you make most plays.”
Seeing a teammate try to do more than one job is what set off Williams early in the second half of Saturday’s game. After Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib connected with receiver Van Chew for a 14-yard completion, Williams barked at Fellner, grabbed his facemask and eventually pushed him away in frustration.
“Coach (Holt) always tells us just to do our one job,” Williams said afterward, explaining his frustration. “When a guy’s out there trying to do more than one thing, then a guy like myself or Mason or Cort (Dennison) or Cameron (Elisara), we can easily run up to the guy, tell him, ‘Hey, just calm down, do your one job, and then everything will be good.’
“… Sometimes I think that the younger guys who’ve been playing for a year or two, they try to do a little too much. But all 11 players in our unit have to do our one job, and we’ll be fine.”
Fellner took no exception to the display, admitting that he was out of position on the completed pass.
“It was a little bit of confusion with getting the calls from the sidelines,” he said Saturday night. “It was kind of hectic sometimes. We’re getting it right. We just had a little miscommunication, that’s it.”
Thanks in large part to Williams, the UW defense got that — and a few other things — fixed as Saturday’s game wore on.
And Holt is certainly glad to have Williams out there helping make corrections.
“He’s a really good football player, and he’s doing a really good job of getting us lined up and talking to the younger guys,” Holt said. “He’s doing what you expect a team captain, doing what you expect and all-league-caliber player, to do.
“He doesn’t surprise me whatsoever. And we really appreciate his leadership.”