Donte Williams compared job interviews with some head coaches to “talking with the president.”
“You’re a little shell-shocked and maybe you don’t want to talk to him too much,” the new Oregon cornerbacks coach explained on Tuesday.
The last two bosses to hire Williams did not fit that description.
“Mike Riley is like a father figure,” Williams said. “Coach Cristobal is the best friend you always wanted.”
Williams spent last season with Riley at Nebraska, but when the staff was let go following a 4-8 season, he joined Cristobal’s inaugural staff with the Ducks after Charles Clark left to coach cornerbacks at Mississippi.
“Donte was on everybody’s radar,” Cristobal said. “One of those guys, to me, like the rest of our staff, who is a five-star guy because as a teacher, mentor, and a guy that can form relationships with our student-athletes, he’s a great representative. He’s an impressive cat, a difference-maker for our program, in my opinion.”
Williams did not know much about Cristobal before he interviewed for the job.
“Just like he recruits players, we had a fun day together, let’s just say that,” Williams said. “We talked about life and our aspirations. Then me knowing (Keith) Heyward, it’s a lot easier transition when you’ve worked with somebody else in the secondary because you have a particular chemistry.”
Williams was a graduate assistant at Washington at 2012 when Heyward was the secondary coach. The two will work in tandem again, with Heyward in his second season coaching safeties with the Ducks.
“Usually when you have somebody in this profession that you respect and know, you stay in touch,” Williams said. “It’s not like we worked together and haven’t talked for five years. He’s somebody I constantly stayed in touch with.”
Williams takes over one of the most inexperienced position groups in the nation, with sophomores Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir the only cornerbacks who have played in an FBS game. Graham tied for the team lead with three interceptions and had 62 tackles in 12 starts as a true freshman. Lenoir had 25 tackles and played every game in a reserve role during his first year in the program.
Junior-college transfer Haki Woods and true freshman Verone McKinley III are the only other players at the position on scholarship this spring, with freshman Kahlef Hailassie slated to arrive in the fall.
“It’s pretty much one guy who has played football much and another sparingly and everyone else is new,” Williams said. “They’re learning football, IQ-wise. A lot of them are tremendous athletes, but not too many have played cornerback.
“In high school, when you play defensive back, you pretty much play offense because everyone is focused on getting the ball. So they’re truly learning how to play the position.”
Williams, who began his college career at Syracuse before transferring to Idaho State, where he was an all-Big Sky selection in 2004 and 2005, coached defensive backs at San Jose State from 2013-15. He spent 2016 coaching cornerbacks at Arizona, making Oregon his third stop in the Pac-12.
“Nowadays in coaching, every two years there’s a complete overhaul,” Williams said. “I know some of the players, but the schemes have definitely changed.”
Williams was at Autzen Stadium in September when Graham intercepted two passes during Oregon’s 42-35 victory over the Cornhuskers. He recently reviewed film of that game and every other one from last season with defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.
“It is hard to assess, because I don’t know exactly what they’re being taught or what is being said to them,” he said.
Williams indicated that the Ducks could move a player to cornerback to add depth to the position.
“Right now we’re very thin, but our guys are out here playing,” he said. “One thing I love is the effort. You can see the want-to is there, and once that’s there, they’ll put in the extra time to get better.”