Kourt Williams was recruited to play the bullet position at Ohio State. Then the bullet disappeared.
When Williams announced his commitment to Ohio State last July, the bullet was hyped up as a hybrid linebacker-safety position that would be a vehicle for Brendon White to make a big impact for the Buckeyes’ defense in 2019. Once the season began, however, the position faded into obscurity – as Ohio State played the majority of its snaps with three linebackers, three cornerbacks and only one safety – and White, presumably dissatisfied with his playing time, ended up leaving the team and transferring to Rutgers.
Even so, Williams never wavered in his commitment to Ohio State, and he hasn’t expressed any concerns about what his role will be as he begins his career with the Buckeyes. Regardless of what position Ohio State ultimately decides to play him at, he expects to get his chance to be a difference-maker for the scarlet and gray.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Williams said. “If I play safety, linebacker, it doesn't really matter. I just want to play. I just want to get on the field.”
Coming out of California’s St. John Bosco High School, Williams’ recruiting profile listed him as a linebacker. He’s started his time at Ohio State as a member of Kerry Coombs’ secondary, lining up at safety during the Buckeyes’ lone week of spring practices and working out with defensive backs to begin summer workouts. It’s still too early to say, though, what his specific role in Ohio State’s defense will ultimately look like.
Asked in February which veteran Ohio State player he’d compare himself to, Williams said he believes he is most similar to Pete Werner – a linebacker who occasionally lined up at safety last season – though his skill set, at 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, isn’t exactly the same as Werner at 6-3, 242.
“In terms of the linebackers like Pete, I'm kind of similar to him,” Williams said. “But I feel like I'm more of a DB-type player more than Pete is.”
In many ways, Williams’ skill set is tailor-made for the modern era of football. As spread offenses have become the norm in the sport, it’s become more important than ever for defenses to have linebackers who can cover and/or defensive backs who can take the role of linebackers, and players like Williams offer the flexibility to change defensive alignments without substituting personnel.
From former Clemson star linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons to Werner at Ohio State, teams are looking more and more for hybrid defenders who can play multiple positions, and Williams could fit that mold.
“He's got a lot of versatility. He can do a lot of things,” Ryan Day said in December after Ohio State signed Williams. “He's a little bit different style than Simmons. Simmons is a little bit longer, Kourt’s maybe a little bit more compact and a little bit bigger, but the same idea though, you can use different things with them, and those are the kind of guys you want.”
Still, there’s the question of what exactly Williams’ future role in Columbus could look like. While the bullet was advertised going into last season as a role for a bigger defensive back like Williams or White, that role ended up being effectively filled by Werner, a more traditional Sam linebacker who has always been a linebacker at Ohio State.
Given that Williams is beginning his career with the safeties, it would appear that the Buckeyes have somewhat different plans for him. That could also speak to how Ohio State’s defense could evolve as Coombs becomes its defensive coordinator and its personnel changes.
Last year, the notion that there would be a designated player in the bullet role was killed by both Werner and Shaun Wade cementing themselves as three-down players, which meant the Buckeyes had three linebackers and three cornerbacks on the field far more often than they had two safeties. But with Werner potentially moving to weakside linebacker this year, Wade moving to outside cornerback this year and both likely gone next year, the value of a true bullet could increase.
Ohio State’s coaches have suggested that the lack of a bullet package had more to do with Werner’s versatility and the trust they had in him than anything else, leaving the door open for the bullet to become a more distinct position in the future.
“Historically, the bullet, the Sam, there are some differences in skillset, but Pete just did such a good job, man,” Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington said this spring. “You walk in with this plan, and as the year goes you play off the moment a little bit. I think that's all that was.”
When Werner is no longer the Sam linebacker, a situational rotation at that spot between a more traditional linebacker and a hybrid defensive back could certainly become possible. Or the Buckeyes could simply start using more two-safety lineups. Either way, Williams is probably best suited to play the role of a strong safety who aligns closer to the line of scrimmage rather than as a single-high deep safety – where he started this spring practicing with the second-team defense – or as an every-down linebacker.
Although Williams believes he can play deep safety if needed, he played primarily in a hybrid role in high school, and he thinks the bullet position as advertised would be a “perfect fit” for his playing style.
“I'm a downhill player,” Williams said. “In certain situations, I can play man. I can guard tight ends and slots (receivers). And I can fit in the run. I can come up and tackle. I'm not afraid to hit.”
“I think he fits like a glove,” Washington said when asked about Williams’ potential to play the bullet position. “His problem is he’s too daggone fast, he’s as fast as a safety. So he’s really talented.
“On his film, he played a bullet-type position, and he’s got contact courage, he’ll go up and hit and he’s no problem sticking his face in there, putting his body in there. But he’s a really good athlete, man, and he can cover ground.”
Over the next couple of years, it will become evident whether the bullet position really will become a significant aspect of Ohio State’s defense or whether it was all made out to be more than it ever should have been.
That said, Williams has the potential to be what that role was hyped up to be a year ago: A do-everything hybrid player who can both play downhill and drop back into coverage, with the athleticism to play all over the field and the size and strength to hold his own in the box.
Williams has both the physical tools and mental maturity to become a defensive standout for the Buckeyes no matter where he lines up, as Day has already said he'll “be surprised if he's not a captain when he's here.”
Now it’s up to the Buckeyes to develop his skill set and figure out the best way to utilize it, but Williams is confident they will.
“This program is so great, the culture and the brotherhood, you couldn't ask for anything more,” Williams said. “Academics, it's all there. Socially, it's all there. And of course football-wise. You couldn't ask for much more from a football program.”