Leonard Williams was not only a star defensive lineman at USC, but now he's the most coveted non-quarterback in this week's NFL draft.
His college position coach, for one, predicts he'll be a bust in the pros.
Make that, a bust that one day graces the hallowed halls in Canton, Ohio.
"You've got to put him in the category of the Warren Sapps, the Cortez Kennedys, the Hall of Famers," said Ed Orgeron, former defensive line coach for the Trojans. "The guy's got the potential to be that type of player. He has a shot to be a dominant football player, and with continued improvement over the next couple of years, he's got the potential to be an NFL Hall of Famer. "
That's awfully heady talk, and it's the kind of speculation that's often overdone. But it means something coming from the respected Orgeron, who was interim coach at USC in the wake of Lane Kiffin's firing in 2013 and now coaches the defensive line at Louisiana State.
He counts Williams among the best players he has coached, and that includes Kennedy, who was a college star at Miami before his decorated pro career in Seattle. Williams, who has opted to leave USC a year early, is widely expected to go in the top five picks Thursday night, possibly as soon as No. 2 to Tennessee.
Tampa Bay is likely to select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston first, then, barring a trade or major surprise, Williams probably will wind up with the Titans, Jacksonville, Oakland or Washington. A wild card will be when Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is selected, and it would raise eyebrows if he slipped out of the top five.
Regardless, in a draft class that's filled with talented defensive players, Williams is the gem, earning All-American honors the last two seasons despite shoulder and ankle injuries.
Wherever he lands, Williams figures to adjust quickly.
"One of the biggest things that made me so versatile in my career is I played for three different D-line coaches at USC — Pete Jenkins, Ed Orgeron and Chris Wilson — and three defensive coordinators as well," Williams told reporters at the scouting combine in February. "I've played in a lot of defensive schemes. With that came moving around a lot. The versatility came."
Williams said leaving college early was "definitely hard," yet he felt he needed to in order to take care of his mother and siblings.
"My mom was a strong single parent," said the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Williams. "She took care of five children who were all my size, so I'm sure it was hard for her to put a lot of food on the table. She's a strong woman, so hopefully one day I'll be able to repay her."
Because he was so big as a kid, Williams wasn't eligible to play football until he got to high school in Daytona Beach, Fla. Before that, he regularly exceeded the Pop Warner weight limit.
"As a kid it made me really sad because a lot of boys dream about playing football," he said. "To not be able to do it was hard. ... The weight limit was 180. I tried Pop Warner when I was in middle school and I was already like 210. I couldn't just cut 30 pounds to play football."
He briefly turned to rugby and enjoyed it, saying it "taught me the physical-ness before I got to football."
When he finally started playing football, his physical ability quickly floated to the surface. He showed uncanny instincts, too, and an abandon that matched his wild mane.
"His demeanor was one of, you just couldn't give him too much," Orgeron said. "Nothing was ever too hard for Lenny. Although he worked very hard. You'd teach something to Leonard in a drill on an individual basis, and he was applying it in the next drill. He'd just pick up stuff and it was natural for him. He has an unbelievable awareness, and things just come natural for Lenny."
The way Williams sees it, he's a safer pick than a quarterback.
"From the previous years [of the draft], sometimes it's like taking a chance when you get a quarterback," he said. "You never know what you're going to get. I would say that I'm going to bring that disruption and physical-ness."