Texas Football: Derek Williams Jr. the impact safety the Longhorns need

Derek Williams Jr., Texas football. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Derek Williams Jr., Texas football. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

Texas football is seeing a new wave of young talent step up this season that will lead this defense into the SEC in 2024. True freshman standouts, including linebacker Anthony Hill Jr., cornerback Malik Muhammad, and safety Derek Williams Jr., have immediately impacted the Texas defense in 2023.

This trio of uber-talented true freshmen defenders for the Longhorns will be the future stars that set the tone for this side of the ball in its early years in the SEC.

They’ve also immediately stepped up to the plate to fill key roles on the Texas defense this fall. Each of these true freshmen has stood out in their own right. Hill has broken out as a hybrid edge rusher and a heat-seeking missile at weakside linebacker.

Muhammad has emerged as a versatile and vital piece of the two-deep at cornerback. He’s taking starter-level reps ahead of schedule as a true freshman. Muhammad has taken the second-most defensive snaps of all Texas cornerbacks this season.

Texas football freshman S Derek Williams Jr. is a key piece of the secondary as a true freshman this fall

Williams, meanwhile, is possibly Texas’ most athletic and versatile safety this season. He’s shown range in pass coverage, the ability to contest space effectively, and SEC-level physicality when he meets the ball carrier in the open field.

The former high-four-star safety recruit out of New Iberia Westgate High School in Louisiana was one of Texas’ highest-rated prospects in their 2023 recruiting class. He arrived at Texas during the summer of the 2023 offseason with high expectations as someone who was projected to compete for a starter role at safety by 2024.

But Williams drew praise from head coach Steve Sarkisian with his gifted physical tools and high football IQ early in fall camp.

"“Derek has really come in with a mindset to try to be the best player he can be. I think football makes sense to him. I think his natural football IQ is very high, and he’s a very versatile player. He’s got great length, he’s got good speed.”"

Yet, Sark wasn’t the only one Williams impressed early in his time on the Forty Acres. Senior defensive back Jahdae Barron came away impressed by Williams’ instincts and physical gifts after the true freshman safety first arrived on campus during the summer.

Williams came into a seemingly advantageous situation at Texas, learning under two experienced senior safeties as a true freshman in Arkansas transfer Jalen Catalon and Jerrin Thompson. He soaked up the knowledge and experience he got from watching and learning under Catalon and Thompson after arriving on campus during the summer in the offseason.

Barron even said that Williams reminded him of Catalon for his high football IQ and awareness in the secondary.

It didn’t take long for Williams to flash his talent in live-game action

Despite being a true freshman who enrolled at Texas just a few months before the start of the 2023 season, Williams proved the stage wasn’t too big for him early in the campaign. During the non-conference slate, he received significant defensive snaps in the Rice and Wyoming games.

He showed his natural coverage ability, football IQ, and physicality during the non-conference slate with multiple third-down stops on defense and a key pass breakup on a money down against Rice in the opener.

Williams was already flashing his talent in the first couple of games as a true freshman. But Williams saw his role in the secondary ramp up at the outset of Big 12 play.

Williams has plugged a necessary gap in Texas’ secondary during Big 12 play

Due to injury issues to other Texas defensive backs and performance issues at safety in Big 12 play, Williams got the opportunity to make an impact while getting starter-level reps in the secondary.

Williams’ ranginess and tackling ability he displayed during the non-conference slate earned him 54 defensive snaps in Texas’ Big 12 opener against Baylor on the road on Sep. 23. That was the second-most snaps of any Texas defender in the win over Baylor in the conference opener.

Texas again counted on significant contributions from Williams in the Red River Rivalry game against the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners on Oct. 7 after Catalon suffered an injury in the first half that knocked him out of the contest.

After Catalon left the game against Oklahoma, Williams took most of the snaps at safety opposite Thompson. Williams made some big plays in pass coverage and run defense against the Sooners, including a nice stuff at the goal line of OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel on an option run.

Williams led all Texas safeties in defensive stops and quarterback rating in pass coverage in the tough last-minute loss to the Sooners in Week 6. He stood out while the other Texas safeties struggled to hold up in space and in their pass coverage assignments after Catalon went down with an injury in the first half of Red River.

Catalon’s injury in Week 6 against Oklahoma is what originally opened the door for Williams to get starter-level reps at safety for the Longhorns. And with Catalon still dealing with injury issues, Williams got significant reps again in Texas’ Week 8 matchup on the road against the Houston Cougars.

Williams had the most productive performance of his career to date in Texas’ narrow 31-24 escape of a win against Houston on Oct. 21. He continued to make impressive plays in multiple phases of the game.

On a key second-down play in the first quarter, Williams made a nice play on the ball where he laid out to break up a pass from quarterback Donovan Smith. Williams also had a critical third-down stop on an open field (one of two defensive stops in this game) in pass coverage against the Cougars last weekend.


Williams was Texas’ third-highest-graded defender in the win over Houston. He was also second on the team in combined tackles (six) and led all safeties in defensive stops.

While Texas’ other safeties struggled mightily in pass coverage, Williams was the only steady force holding his own against Smith and his multiple weapons in the Houston receiving corps. Williams had the lowest QBR against in pass coverage against Houston and was the only Texas safety not to allow over 40 receiving yards.

Williams should be starting at safety down the stretch

There’s a valid argument to be made that Williams was Texas’ only good safety after Catalon went down with injury in Red River. Thompson, junior safety Michael Taaffe, and senior Kitan Crawford were exploited consistently in pass coverage against Houston last weekend.

And this wasn’t the first time this trio of safeties were targeted by opposing offensive coordinators in pass coverage this season. Texas’ safeties have proven to be an issue in coverage this season that opposing offenses can exploit in coverage.

Thompson has allowed multiple deep ball touchdowns against Power Five offenses. Crawford and Taaffe are Texas’ lowest-graded safeties in coverage this season.

Starting Williams at safety feels like the most logical answer to address the issues Blake Gideon, co-DC Pete Kwiatkowski, and the Longhorns have at the safety position this season against Power Five offenses. The safety combination of Taaffe and Crawford is clearly not working for the Longhorns, as opponents can exploit Taaffe’s average speed and athleticism and Crawford’s inability to read developing route concepts.

Thompson has also struggled to contest space and stay with his man over the top covering the deep ball.

Williams is the only safety Texas has that boasts the combination of instincts, athleticism, and physicality required to thrive at the safety position in PK’s defense. He’s the only safety that isn’t getting exploited consistently in pass coverage.

The argument that Williams isn’t ready to take starting reps because he’s a true freshman doesn’t have many legs to stand on at this point. He’s proving he is among the best and most instinctive young safeties in coverage in the Big 12. And he’s got the nose to find the football as a freshman that usually takes years for a safety to develop at the Power Five level.

Unless PK and the Longhorns want to continue to get exploited in coverage with opposing OCs targeting Texas’ vulnerable safeties, changes must be made down the stretch. Starting Williams in Texas’ next contest against the BYU Cougars at home on Oct. 28 would be a simple and logical adjustment to help this secondary find more consistency while getting a young and instinctive playmaker more defensive snaps.

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