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Kansas City Chiefs’ Joshua Williams caps season of growth with trip to Super Bowl

Rookie from Fayetteville State made key interception in AFC title game

PHOENIX — The AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium was the highlight – thus far – of Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Joshua Williams’ rookie year.

The Fayetteville State product replaced L’Jarius Sneed, who was injured on the game’s opening drive. Late in the fourth quarter, Williams recorded his second interception of the season, allowing the Chiefs to end a promising drive for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Making a play in a critical game was a bright spot in a long season marred by trial and error for the first-year player.

Joshua Williams of the Kansas City Chiefs intercepts a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 29 in Kansas City, Missouri. Safety Bryan Cook’s (left) tip of the ball led to the pick, Williams said.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“They always say, you know, production is at the ball. You see, Bryan [Cook], he got up and made the acrobatic tip and basically threw me the alley-oop. I caught it,” Williams told Andscape. “It was a great feeling, especially with getting a chance to redeem myself from the first game when we took a loss. So, you know, I definitely felt good performing the way I did against them.”

Williams, whom the Chiefs selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft, was the first out of four players from historically Black colleges or universities chosen last year. He is one of four HBCU players who will play in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday; the others are Cook (Cincinnati via Howard), Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Franklin “Mac” McCain III (North Carolina A&T) and Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State).

Williams was a part of the rebuilding of Kansas City’s secondary, alongside fellow rookies Cook, Nazeeh Johnson, Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson.

At rookie minicamp, Chiefs defensive backs coach Dave Merritt, a member of their staff during their last two Super Bowl appearances, brought Williams and the rest of the class up to speed with the team’s defensive scheme. It wasn’t enough for them to nod and say, “Yes, coach, I got it” – Merritt frequently tested the players during position group meetings by having them draw assignments on the board.

“[Joshua] had to understand that he had to take that pill and swallow it. ‘No, I don’t have it.’ So he started to learn how to study, and you have to teach these young men how to study,” said Merritt, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants as a defensive backs coach. “So I think his biggest growth has been the fact that he’s learning our defense and our techniques and what we asked him to do.”

The Chiefs pegged the 6-foot-3-inch Williams as a potential matchup nightmare for wide receivers. He was naturally comfortable in man-to-man coverage but struggled with the Chiefs’ zone coverages.

“My biggest thing is when you get these young men that are coming from HBCUs, give them a chance to help them learn the game, and you never know what you’re going to get,” Merritt said. “From day one this young man came in and he was playing with press technique that no one has seen before in his long arms. So, he knew how to play press. But then when it came to playing all the zone coverages, that’s where the growth had to come in.”

Williams found success breaking up the playbook into parts and dissecting the holes in coverages. Coaches also helped ease his learning curve with additional guidance.

“[Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] has an extensive playbook and he expects everybody to be in tiptop shape on it. It doesn’t matter if you’re really a rookie, you got to step up and take initiative to learn that playbook,” Williams said. “He holds everybody accountable. And I appreciate him for that.”

Cook, who spent two seasons at Howard before transferring to Cincinnati, has bonded with Williams over their shared HBCU and rookie experiences.

“It’s very rare at an HBCU. You don’t get that experience anywhere else. I think we started, like, me, him and the guys, like the rookies [defensive backs], will go down in a hotel and first start with the OTAs [organized team activities],” Cook said. “We will study things together like that. So, I think just off the bat trying to learn and trying to learn from each other. Trying to ask you to get better has always been a great thing in the locker room.”

This season Merritt told Williams and the Chiefs’ other first-year players that if they made a mistake, regroup and go again. Williams has remained even-keeled, even when fans have heckled him for blown assignments.

“Naturally I try to be upbeat about everything and be optimistic. I don’t ever really get too down on myself,” Williams said. “My teammates, they definitely keep you upbeat, and they motivate you to keep playing and don’t just get upset over one play or one quarter or even one game. … There’s a lot of good players in this league and you got to realize that, and you belong here for a reason.”

Time and repetition have been his biggest teachers. Williams regularly practices his coverage techniques, and watching film and getting playing time has increased his general defensive knowledge. Tips from coaches and veterans made the process a little quicker, and studying with fellow rookies also helped.

“His ability to always try to learn [stands out],” Cook said. “I think Josh as a person, like, just stepping away from it, that’s always something I can admire.”

The rookies’ immediate contributions on the field have helped the Chiefs earn their third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

“They brought in a lot of rookies this year, and they expected us to play and do well this season,” Williams said. “So, you know, we stepped up to the challenge and took time, but we had some amazing vets around us, some amazing coaches, and without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Williams has found his confidence, and his play in the AFC Championship Game was the culmination of his growth this season, Merritt said.

“He was able to go in the game last week after three plays when LJ was injured and all week long I had him in and out at practice,” Merritt said. “When his name was called, he was ready to go. His confidence again continues to climb because of experience.”

Williams said he won’t change his pregame routine for the Super Bowl other than drinking more water to combat the Arizona heat. Several veterans from the Chiefs, who won Super Bowl LIV in 2020, also offered words of wisdom.

“ ‘Just stay focused. Stay the course. Play hard and know your assignment,’ ” Williams said, repeating their advice. “ ‘Do your job and do it the very best that you can, and I’m 100% confident we’ll walk out here with a win.’ ”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."