Trent Williams sat in front of his locker at Redskins Park, reflecting on his journey from promising NFL prospect to seasoned left tackle. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Williams is in his third season out of Oklahoma.
It feels a lot longer.
Drawing the assignment of facing the league’s top pass rushers on a weekly basis and a career-threatening life lesson have forced Williams to grow up quickly.
The Washington Redskins drafted him fourth overall in 2010 to be the cornerstone of the line, and paid him like it, signing him to a six-year, $60 million deal with more than $36.5 million guaranteed. A starter from the outset, Williams learned on the fly, with some ups and downs that first year.
He showed improvement last season, but just as he had overcome injuries and appeared to be rounding into form as a pass protector, Williams suffered an embarrassing end to his 2011 campaign when he was suspended for four games for failing multiple drug tests.
Since then, he has trekked toward redemption — saying and doing the right things off the field and playing at his best.
Determined to keep rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III upright and lead the Redskins back to relevance in the NFL, Williams has thrived this season, winning faceoffs with perennial double-digit sack specialists John Abraham, Jared Allen, Trent Cole, Jason Pierre-Paul and DeMarcus Ware.
“He’s really being a force out there. He’s dictating to the top-tier guys of this league,” said Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo. “I don’t think a guy has really dominated him yet, or even had an advantage yet . . . lot of the guys that are top tiers in this league, they don’t like to face Trent. I’ve gotten word of that through other guys around the league on how much of a force Trent has become.”
Said New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck: “I think he’s coming into his own as far as being one of the premier left tackles in the league. He’s very athletic. He’s a strong, athletic guy. A lot of the teams give their linemen a lot of help and I haven’t seen the Redskins give him much help. That lets me know how confident they are in him.”
The Redskins will need another strong effort out of Williams on Monday night as they face the New York Giants, who boast a three-headed pass-rushing attack featuring Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul.
It’s a crucial meeting for the Redskins. On the other side are the NFC East leaders and defending Super Bowl champs.
At stake for Washington is a chance to pick up a third consecutive win, even its record at 6-6 and keep alive playoff hopes.
The Redskins’ success on offense starts with their ability to protect Griffin from a defensive front that is tied for fifth in the NFL with 30 sacks.
The Giants, however, rank 25th in the NFL against the pass (253 yards per game).
Washington’s offensive line has played better as a whole this season, and despite yielding three sacks to the Giants in the teams’ first meeting, the unit paved the way for 480 yards of offense (232 passing and 248 rushing).
Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger has overcome MCL and ACL tears that ended his 2011 season; center Will Montgomery has become a steady anchor; and right guard Chris Chester is having a consistent second season in Washington. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus has filled the void left by Jammal Brown, who was unable to overcome recurring hip injuries and won’t play again this season.
Williams will be charged with protecting Griffin from Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul as they alternate at the right end positions.
Polumbus draws the task of fending off Tuck and Pierre-Paul, who at times lines up at left end.
The Giants enter Monday night’s game seeking to extend their lead in the NFC East.
Washington aims to continue its recent surge and move a game closer to the Giants.
Fully aware of what’s at stake, Williams intends to play despite a sprained ankle and deep thigh bruise that have hobbled him for the past week.
He missed three straight days of practice, took part in a limited capacity on Friday and Saturday and is officially listed as questionable.
But Williams said Wednesday that he expected to play, and that’s exactly what his quarterback wanted to hear.
“I already told him that if he needs me in the training room with him, I’ll be there,” Griffin said earlier in the week. “I’ll rub on his leg, whatever he needs me to do. It’s paramount. He’s one of our leaders. He brings a certain attitude to the game as well and it completes that offensive line that’s played pretty well all year.”
Williams, however, didn’t need Griffin to tell him how badly he was needed — or to rub his leg, he said with a grin. He already understood that with the Redskins trying to become only the fourth team since 1990 to make the playoffs after opening a season 3-6, he has no choice but to play. He also knows that to achieve his goal of becoming a Pro Bowl tackle, the Redskins must win games.
This year Williams has fully grasped what is expected of a franchise left tackle, that in the NFL, there’s more to it than floating through the practice week, lining up on game day and blocking a guy.
As a standout in college, Williams said he relied almost exclusively on his ability. He had the size and speed (a 4.75-second time in the 40-yard dash) and didn’t need much more. Williams said he never really dedicated himself in the weight room until it was time to prepare for the NFL Combine. Pre-draft scouting reports praised Williams’s physical gifts but questioned his intangibles.
“He had the reputation coming up, but he’s very talented,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “In fact, [Oklahoma] Coach [Bob] Stoops says he’s probably the best athlete he’s ever had at Oklahoma as an offensive or defensive lineman. He could play either one. The question was work ethic.”
The answer to that question came this year, when Williams rebounded from the drug suspension, which taught him that on-field production was only part of the equation, dedicated himself to studying opponents and elevated his play. He understands that there is no room for complacency. Achieving greatness requires constant drive.
“Obviously, as a player, you always want to grow and be better than before,” Williams said. “I noticed that when I first got to the NFL, my life changed so dramatically overnight that football was kind of hard to focus on. And after my rookie season, I had to sit down with myself and just take a time out, and realize that football is what got me in this situation, and if this is all I’m going to do, this is what I’m going to be known for, I have to do it to the best of my ability, and try to be the best at my position.”
Williams added: “I think it was both [on the field and off the field]. The last year deal was an off-the-field issue. On the field, I did play pretty well. In the locker room, I was always [vocal]. I was voted team captain last year. But, I had some decisions to make in my personal life, some habits I had to break.”
In addition to staying on the straight and narrow, Williams increased his role as a team leader and has played more consistently than ever before. He also has taught himself how to play effectively despite injuries.
Four games into the season when a bruised knee made it impossible for Williams to practice all week, he suited up and fared well against Tampa Bay, helping Washington to victory. The same injury had forced him to miss two games in each of the two previous seasons, but this year, Williams wouldn’t be sidelined.
On Thanksgiving Day against Dallas, already plagued by the sprained ankle, Williams took a knee to the thigh on the first series and visibly labored onto the field and from the huddle to the line of scrimmage. Williams said he played at “about 60 percent,” but he didn’t surrender a sack all game.
“I knew he was quite sore,” Shanahan said. “You could see just from the way he was trotting out to the field that it was really bothering him, but he wasn’t going to come out. He was going to stay out there and be a captain and fight through it.”
The need remains this week. With five games left, and Washington in the thick of the wild-card race, the team has virtually no margin for error.
So Williams finds himself in yet another pressure situation. He’s not complaining, however. His journey might have been less eventful, and possibly smoother, had it gone at a more gradual pace. But the trials – on and off the field – have molded him.
“It definitely was a lot of pressure, but no, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “To much is given, much is expected. I thank God for that position, because it helped me learn a lot. And I definitely, definitely don’t take anything for granted now, especially with what happened last season.”
FedEx Field, 8:30 p.m., WDCA (Channel 20), ESPN