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Left tackle Trent Williams is off to a good start for the Washington Redskins

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; 12:12 AM

On his seventh play as a professional football player, Trent Williams went dancing.

There were no twirls and no dips, and Williams led the whole way. On second and 10 from the Dallas Cowboys 27-yard line last Sunday, Williams engaged strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, meeting him at the hash marks of the 25-yard line and pushing him backward, all the way until the pair reached the sidelines near the 16-yard line. Tight end Chris Cooley, meanwhile, had caught a short pass from Donovan McNabb and followed Williams, gaining 14 yards and setting up the Redskins' first points in their first win of the season. The rookie's block was as important as anything on the first drive of the Mike Shanahan era.

For many fans, it offered all the validation they needed that the 22-year-old Williams will be able to hold down the left tackle spot, perhaps the biggest hole the Redskins faced in the offseason. Williams concedes his regular season opener felt a lot different than the preseason games. "Everyone was letting all their cats out the bag," the rookie said.

As for Shanahan, he long ago reached a verdict on his first draft pick as Redskins coach. "I think normally you can tell in the first three or four days," he said. "It doesn't take long to see if a guy is a legitimate player."

Aided with a mentor not afforded other rookies, Williams enters the Redskins' Week 2 matchup against the Houston Texans already a step ahead of the other tackles from his class. After holding his own against DeMarcus Ware in his regular season debut, Williams will draw Mario Williams, Houston's powerful defensive end, on Sunday, which is not unlike tearing through a giant rib-eye and getting a plate of pork chops for dessert.

A proven mentor

There was plenty of debate prior to the NFL draft about this year's crop of tackles, considered to be a strong class no matter how the players were ranked. Many were surprised when Trent Williams was the first to hear his name called, as the fourth overall pick. A total of four tackles were selected in the first round, but Williams is the only one currently starting at left tackle.

Russell Okung, considered by many to be the draft's top lineman, went to Seattle with the No. 6 pick; he'll miss his second straight game Sunday with an ankle injury. The draft's 11th overall selection, Anthony Davis, is starting for the 49ers, but they're easing him in at right tackle. Green Bay took Bryan Bulaga with the 23rd pick, and he enters Week 2 as the Packers' backup right tackle. (Rodger Saffold, the first pick of the second round, is the starting left tackle for the Rams, protecting Sam Bradford's blind side.)

Williams has something that Okung and the others don't. Although Okung's offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, abruptly quit the Seahawks earlier this month, Williams has had offensive line coach Chris Foerster and the help of Chris Samuels, a six-time Pro Bowler whose retirement created Washington's vacancy at left tackle.

Samuels and Williams were linked from the start. Samuels represented the team at the draft in New York and escorted Williams to Washington. They haven't spent much time apart since.

Samuels served as a coaching intern during training camp, but the NFL-sponsored program ended last month. "I begged him not to leave," Williams said. Samuels wasn't ready to leave either, so he asked Shanahan if he could remain with the team for the entire season. Shanahan agreed, and Samuels is at Redskins Park every morning, keeping the same hours as coaches and working closely with all of the linemen, especially Williams.

"From when I first walk in the door until I leave, he's right there with me," Williams said.

Samuels is with the linemen on the practice field and in the meeting room. He watches hours of tape and helps Williams game-plan for pass rushers such as Ware and Mario Williams.

"I played against those guys in the past, so the experiences that I had, that's pretty much what I can pass on to him," Samuels said. "Things to look for, their best moves. When I watch tape, when I see something, I'll mention it to him."

Samuels also has given Williams some off-field guidance, helping the rookie adjust to the NFL lifestyle. The advice might not be different than what coaches offer, but it's hard not to pay attention when the speaker represents everything Williams is striving for.

"Chris played that position," Foerster said. "He came in as a rookie and started as a rookie as well. Just like Trent. So he knows exactly what Trent's going through right now. He's able to offer him that perspective, tell him what to expect, what pitfalls might be there, what's going to happen in the game. 'My first game against so-and-so was like this.' "

Said Williams: "I spend virtually all day with Chris - every day, day in and day out. He's in the meeting rooms, at practice, in the lunch room with us. We're just always talking."

The Redskins' other four starting linemen have started a combined 331 games. Sunday will mark Williams's second start, so he's heeding any morsel of advice that's offered.

"He gives me so much insight," Williams said of Samuels. "I really couldn't gauge it if I didn't have him. I don't even know what it'd be like.

"He just got done going up against a lot of these people that I'm playing. He's got a lot of inside tips. It's not just like a coach telling me what I need to do. It's a person telling me how to do it because he had success in the past doing it that way."

Another tough test

Just as Samuels had first-hand advice from lining up against the Cowboys' Ware, he's also familiar with Mario Williams. The two met in 2006 in Mario Williams's third game as a professional, and Samuels fared pretty well. Mark Brunell wasn't sacked once and the Redskins amassed more than 230 rushing yards. Williams never got so much as a quarterback hurry in the game.

But four years later, Mario Williams is much more comfortable as a pro. Last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, in one of his best games, he sacked Peyton Manning once and managed five more quarterback hurries. Playing end in a 4-3 defense, he'll line up on both sides of the line against the Redskins, but should draw Trent Williams the majority of the time.

"I don't care if it's the first year of [Williams's career] or the 15th year, I just always try to go out and compete against whoever it is out there facing me," Mario Williams said. "It's not like I try to teach something to somebody because they're a rookie. I'm trying to do that to everybody."

Going against the Cowboys' 3-4 defense last week, Washington's coaches didn't feel Trent Williams needed much help in protection. While Mario Williams could be a handful on Sunday, Trent Williams isn't getting babied into the league.

"To me, he's doing a great job for them," said Houston Coach Gary Kubiak, a Shanahan disciple who relies on a similar zone-blocking scheme. "To me, when you draft those young players like that, they go in the fire, so to speak, right off the get-go. . . . I think the quicker they play, the quicker they grow up and become the great players that you drafted them to be. I'm very impressed with him. I think he's doing a hell of a job."

Shanahan knew that much early. Shortly after Williams was drafted, Shanahan started comparisons with Ryan Clady, Shanahan's first-round draft pick in 2008 with the Broncos. Clady started right away and was selected to the Pro Bowl in his second season. First Clady, and now with Williams, Shanahan said he knew after just a couple of practices that he had "something special."

"You could see the quickness, the speed, the intelligence," Shanahan said of Williams. "You knew he was going to be a football player. There's always going to be some growing pains, but hey, that's part of the NFL."

So how good could Williams be? Facing Ware in the season opener was one test. And while Mario Williams is another big challenge, every Sunday will provide a new progress report for a rookie who's already off to a good start.

"I think he's right along the same path that I was," Samuels said. "I think he can be better than I was, if he just continues to work hard and stay on track. He definitely has all the physical tools, he's a smart guy and he learns fast. If he just stays hungry, the sky's the limit for him."

Staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this report.

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