Tyleik Williams has given Twitter conspiracy theorists plenty to feed off of over the past two seasons.
In an age of proliferated transfer portal movement and NIL offer speculation, it doesn’t take much to rile up supporters of any respective fanbase with a few cryptic words on social media. Whether or not there’s any real substance to a particular message or action, many will believe they have enough to read the supposed tea leaves.
For the Ohio State defensive tackle, merely a two-word refrain has done the trick.
Williams began tweeting the mantra in the middle of his true freshman season, at which point he had already flashed on the field with a three-game stretch in which he racked up four sacks for the Buckeyes. Williams played in every game the rest of the season for Ohio State, but never more than 19 snaps. Given his production, many thought Williams deserved a longer leash.
Perhaps Williams had a similar line of thinking, not that he ever said as much publicly. But his initial “Free 91” tweet – which Williams subsequently deleted – seemed to suggest as much, if anyone was searching for meaning to assign the sentiment from the outside looking in.
After the season, though, Williams took full accountability for his lack of playing time, saying, “I wasn’t in shape, so they couldn’t put me on the field.”
“That’s not on them," Williams said last March. "That’s on me.”
Williams shed the excess weight he’d put on during the COVID-19 pandemic over his second offseason in Columbus and wound up playing 253 snaps in 2022. That was 70 more than he saw as a true freshman but only the fourth-most among Ohio State defensive tackles. Williams finished with four fewer sacks and tackles for loss in his second season than in his first but recorded five more total tackles.
The “Free 91” tweets only became more frequent, whether Williams posted those two words by themselves or as a hashtag at the end of a tweet. After the regular season, such posts received replies from Buckeye fans imploring Williams to remain in the program.
free 91— Tyleik Williams (@tyleikk) October 9, 2022
blessed for the opportunities god has infront of me .#free91— Tyleik Williams (@tyleikk) November 30, 2022
“Please don’t leave us young man,” one user wrote. “You will dominate next year!”
A smile came across Williams’ face when asked about the notorious catchphrase in an interview with Eleven Warriors at Peach Bowl media day in Atlanta last month. But the Virginia native brushed it aside as nothing more than his personal motto.
“It’s just a saying I've been having since last year. Nothing about it,” Williams said. “It’s just a saying. … (People are) thinking too much. Overthinking.”
In fact, Williams gave a firm “nah” when asked if it meant he was unhappy with his playing time. For Buckeye fans, that could be perceived as a cause for relief or simply a bluff from the Ohio State lineman.
If anything, it’s probably a reminder for everyone to spend less time online, especially on social media networks like Twitter.
As of now, it appears Williams will be back with the Buckeyes in 2023, and he should have his biggest role on the Ohio State defense to date. Starting tackle Taron Vincent, who played 490 snaps in 2022, is headed to the NFL. Jerron Cage, whose 187 snaps were fifth-most among the defensive tackles, is also pursuing his professional future.
"I lost, like, a lot of weight. It was baby fat. Now I'm in college shape, I think. Last year, I was just playing. Now I got my strength up. Speed, football IQ, things like that.”– Tyleik Williams
That leaves only Ty Hamilton (300) and Mike Hall (266) as the lone returning tackles to have seen more playing time in 2022 than Williams. Of those three, Williams received the highest position grade for the year, per Pro Football Focus. Williams graded out at 81.3, Hall came in at 80.3 and PFF gave Hamilton a 65.7.
Williams said his commitment to getting in shape before the season made a world of difference for him, even if some on-field numbers didn’t point to obvious improvement from year one to year two.
“Yeah, of course it did. I lost, like, a lot of weight,” Williams said. “It was baby fat. Now I'm in college shape, I think. Last year, I was just playing. Now I got my strength up. Speed, football IQ, things like that.”
Statistically speaking, Hall had the most impressive season of all DTs. The redshirt freshman tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks and was fourth on the roster with 7.5 tackles for loss. Not to mention, Hall was banged up for much of the season and most of those numbers came in the first half of the year.
Another member of the 2021 recruiting class, Hall’s emergence largely overshadowed Williams’ own second season. That won’t necessarily be an issue moving forward, though, as the pair can play alongside one another and are expected to see an uptick in opportunities with Vincent and Cage gone.
While a full-time starting role is well within grasp for Williams, he knows his game isn’t fully refined. Before the Peach Bowl, Williams hadn’t yet had extensive conversations with Larry Johnson about what he needed to work on moving forward. But Williams already has a good idea of some of those areas of improvement.
“I think I've just got to play faster and more physical,” Williams said. “Lock in, like more film and stuff like that.”
Williams doesn’t know if he’s “looked at as a leader” in the Buckeye program just yet, but that could change as his role expands as an upperclassman in 2023 and beyond.
“I can be a leader for them if it comes to that,” Williams said.