Small school corner Joshua Williams shows toughness, speed at Senior Bowl

Detroit News

Mobile, Ala. — There’s an old football cliche that cornerbacks are failed receivers, and in the case of Fayetteville State’s Joshua Williams, it’s kind of true.

The big-framed, small-school sensation is turning heads at the Senior Bowl with his physical playing style and blazing straight-line speed at a position he’s only been playing since his senior year of high school.

That move came after realizing he didn’t have a future catching passes. Not having a breakthrough at receiver, Williams’ high school coach suggested the switch. And even though he was reluctant at first, the new position came naturally.

“I credit a lot of that to my coach,” Williams said. “Just that summer, I was learned at a rapid pace. I never picked up receiving at that rate. That felt like the writing on the wall. Me, my ambitious mind, I was thinking, yeah, I can do this at the next level. I knew wherever I played, if I played hard, somebody would come find me.”

Only qualifying for D-II schools coming out of high school, Williams landed at Fayetteville State after a year at a prep school. He was confident that if he succeeded it didn’t matter where he was, the NFL would find him. His invite to the Senior Bowl validated that and early impressions at the event could see him work his way from a Day 3 talent into the draft’s second day.

More: Lions’ Campbell reflects on mentor Sean Payton’s retirement, opportunity to pick his brain

Beyond the tantalizing size, measuring in at 6-foot-3, Williams also recorded the fastest speed of players on his team. He’s hoping to run in the 4.3’s at the NFL Combine next month. That killer combination of size and speed is coveted across the league.

“I believe in my skill set, I believe in my game and I’m going to just keep doing what I do, work hard, play through every rep and lock it down,” Williams said.

The right choice

Wide receiver Jalen Tolbert committed to the University of South Alabama as a dual-sport athlete, intending to also serve as an outfielder for the school’s baseball team. But a leg injury, cartilage chipping off his femur, forced him to decide one or the other.

The competitive nature of football ultimately won out and Tolbert is now on the cusp of being drafted to the NFL. A highly productive deep threat who caught 146 balls for more than 2,500 yards to go with 16 touchdowns the past two seasons, he’s looking to rubber stamp his resume against a higher level of competition at the Senior Bowl.

Working with Lions receiving coach Antwaan Randle El, Tolbert is attempting to show his ability to line up both outside and in the slot, while maintaining his ability to get beyond the deepest layer of the defense. He hauled in two deep throws the first day of practice, leaping up to pluck a 50-50 ball over a defender on one.

Part of his success in that area is an overlap from his time patrolling the outfield.

“Tracking the ball, understanding the flight of the ball and seeing where it’s at (in the air),” Tolbert said. “I think my hand-eye coordination is pretty good from seeing that little ball fly toward you, whether you’re batting or in the outfield chasing it down.”

Relatively inexperienced, having taken up football in high school, Tolbert has been training at the same facility as many of the top prospects at his position, as well as the several of the league’s premier young receivers, including Justin Jefferson, Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith.

“I was kind of raw to the sport, so I never really knew it would go this far,” Tolbert said. “I’m excited. I’m not really aware of what my ceiling is, but I’m excited to reach it.”

Top QB not fretting hand size

Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett is in Mobile to further his case to be the first quarterback selected in April’s draft, but as NFL teams nitpick every facet of his profile, he declined to have his hands measured before the event.

It’s been reported that Pickett is double-jointed, making it difficult to get an accurate measurement, or at least one that wouldn’t make it appear his hands check in well below preferred standards at his position.

“I think that’s the No. 1 thing for quarterbacks in the draft process you hear every year is hand size,” Pickett said. “The good news is I played in Pittsburgh. Anyone who has been to Pittsburgh knows it’s not the nicest place to play in October and November. So I have experience playing in tough weather. I didn’t measure in this week. I want to get the most accurate measurement I can and I’m working on mobility things. I’ll measure it in Indy at the combine.”

Pickett clarified that mobility things simply meant stretches, designed to boost his number.

Fumbles were certainly an issue early in the QB’s college career, but he seemed to settle down by his senior season. The four-year starter put nine balls on the ground his freshman year, but fumbled just three times during his impressive 2021 campaign.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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