The former Michigan State defensive tackle’s path to the pros is paved with motivation and maturity.
Michigan State Spartan fans were stunned at the conclusion of April’s NFL Draft, when fan-favorite Raequan Williams went undrafted. But the 6-4, 308-pound defensive tackle, known for both his personality and his perseverance in East Lansing, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles in the days following the draft.
It is possible that a poor performance at February’s NFL combine dropped Williams’ stock. The Chicago native, who played football and basketball at DePaul College Prep, received a fairly low Relative Athletic Score of 4.94, putting him in the 49th percentile for all defensive lineman despite his ability to move quickly from the interior and eat up blockers in the middle of the offensive line.
At MSU, Williams was the rock at the center of the Spartans’ defensive line. He started 42 consecutive games, the most by any player during head coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure. His standout season was his junior season, when he had 53 tackles (including 10 1/2 for losses) and two sacks, and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in both 2018 and 2019. Overall, Williams finished his career as a Spartan with 160 tackles, including 29 for loss, 11.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Michigan State had the No. 1 rush defense in the country in 2017 and was No. 2 in 2018, and Williams ability to stuff the run was a big part of that success. “He’s an anchor guy,” Dantonio told the Detroit Free Press. “He’s a guy that you can build your defense around.”
Coaches also praise Williams’ work ethic and his personality as a confident team leader and a dedicated team player. Dantonio often joked that Williams, with his effusive charm and ability to get and keep his teammates attention in the locker room, on the field and on the bus, would one day be elected mayor of his hometown of Chicago.
Raequan Williams was a two-time Associated Press All-Big Ten First Team selection at Michigan State.
It is even more impressive that Williams has maintained such a positive mental outlook when you consider what he has overcome. In 2016 and 2017, both his brother and a cousin he grew up with and considered a brother were shot dead on the streets of Chicago in separate incidents 17 months apart. Williams, then a redshirt sophomore, wanted to leave school and come home to protect his family from further violence. But Raequan’s mother, LaTasha, convinced her son to stay in school.
“Rae wanted to stop,” LaTasha told the Detroit Free Press. “He was ready to come back. I told him, ‘No, it’s gotta motivate you more, so you do what you gotta do. Don’t let this stop you. Take it out on the field.’”
Williams did just that, using his family to motivate and elevate himself to become one of four team captains for the Spartans’ 2019 season. More importantly, in addition to being an NFL prospect, he held firm academically and received his degree in advertising management in December 2019.
“My family drives me,” he says. “One of my earliest memories is my mom crying. I want to make that a better spot for her. I want to make everything better for her. So whenever there’s a decision that needs to be made and I got to think morally, I think back to my family and how I got to support them because they need it. And that drives me.”
It’s a mentality that has driven Williams all the way to the NFL.
STACK sat down with Williams, who was training at EXOS in Pensacola, Florida, to prepare for the NFL combine. Here is a transcript of that interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
STACK: You played basketball growing up. What was Raequan Williams, the basketball player like, what was your game?
Oh man, I think I can ball, everybody from Chicago can ball, I feel like a little bit, but yeah, basketball is big in Chicago, so my skills developed early with that. That was like our first sport. That’s the first thing you do in Chicago is play ball.
Do you think you’re a better football player today because you grew up playing basketball?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Football came natural and easy because of some of the things you had to do in basketball, just lateral movement and all the jumping and running and sprinting. So with football these cuts come easy and like everything, redirecting and chasing the ball, which is probably my best attribute, came easy because I naturally played basketball growing up.
When did you start getting kind of serious about training and getting inside the weight room for football?
I’d say my junior year of high school, that’s when I really started to like, I got to get stronger if I want to be a better player. Because the offers started to come in at the end of my sophomore year. So I was like, “Oh I could actually do this.” And then I realized there’s a lot of big, strong players out there, so I got to get in the weight room. And that became a good habit of mine.
Were there any athletes who stick out in your mind that you grew up trying to emulate?
LeBron James is like, I don’t know man, he’s like a godfather to me or something because he’s the reason I read my first book. I saw him in a book in the library. My teacher tried to get me to read for forever, and I ain’t never want to read but she brought out a LeBron James book and after that, it’s been over man. I’ve been reading since, but LeBron James definitely is the prophet to me.
Williams graduated from Michigan State with a BA in advertising management.
What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read?
I like The Chosen One, he had, it was a smaller one by him. My grandma got me a Walter Payton book, so I became a Bears fan. It’s just so all sports book really, and then I got into biographies and then I started reading like Malcolm X books and just history.
Were you someone who in high school either woke up early or stayed late to try and get in extra work, whether it was extra work in the weight room, extra film session, just extra reps on the practice field?
Yeah. I ain’t never wanted to be the guy that was late, so I was always the early guy or the guy that’s picking up the teammates, taking them. And I was always the guy that wanted to keep going too, so I wasn’t the best right away, but over time I saw I got better. So that gave me confidence.
Was there anyone who you believe really helped develop your work ethic back in high school?
Definitely my high school basketball coach, Tommy Kleinschmidt, he’s a tough guy, he’s going to get everything he can get out of you. And he taught me, you ain’t got to do a lot, but you got to do something extra every day. And that little extra became into a lot because it became easier when I was doing too much little stuff. Now I needed to do a lot more to challenge myself.
Do you remember some of the first goals you wrote down in college?
I remember my first one was get stronger, lose weight, and I accomplished those my freshman year. And then it became develop a pass rush, use your hands. Then it became, I need five sacks or I need three fumbles. I remember stuff like that I wrote down over the years. Over the years the expectations got a little bigger for my goals.
Williams started 42 consecutive games at defensive tackle for the Spartans.
Do you have goals written down right now?
I mean, I definitely want to get drafted. That’s a big goal of mine. Improve my numbers. I feel like I need to get a good vert because of my pledges, I got to get a good vert for my pledges. I’m doing it for this Breakthrough program. So I grew up in that program. They basically help develop kids in the same area as me growing up in Chicago. So I want to get my donations for my pledges up high. So those are the only three goals I got right now.
Is there any weight room number or feat that you’re most proud of?
I’m not even a big weight room strength guy either. Like my numbers aren’t … But people watch my film and they’re like, “Man you’re strong.” But I’m like I can’t really do as much in a weight room as you really think I could. But something I was proud of: I got to do 10 Pull-Ups back-to-back-to-back. I remember I couldn’t do one right away that was my highlight in my weight room, I did 10 pull ups straight.
How different is your body now than when you were a freshman? Just your body type and what went into those changes?
I got up to 315 my freshman year, so by the end of my freshman year I was at 315. Now I’m 295 and I feel a lot more explosive. Even though, I don’t even look like I’m … you know what I mean? 300 pounds. So my body has changed drastically. My mom used to say I’m a baby fat. That’s what she used to call me, “baby fat,” all the time. Now she just complimented me on how good I look now. So that’s a good feeling.
Williams trained for the NFL Combine at EXOS in Pensacola, Florida.
You redshirted your freshman year and played on the scout team.What was it like?
We had some tough guys on that old line right away. When I was a freshman. I remember going into the end of camp and Coach D (MSU head coach Mark Dantonio) calling me into his office and asking me like, “Do you want a redshirt or you want to play right now, because you’re capable of playing right now.” I was like, “I’d rather would redshirt.” I know we had a lot of good seniors that year … all those guys had a chance at the next level.
So I knew I wouldn’t really get much playing time, so I redshirted. But up on a scout team, we had some dogs on there. I remember Jack Allen, he was an All-American from Michigan State. Jack Conklin, Donovan Mitchell, I think … They didn’t want me to take it easy on them and they made it to a Big 10 championship. So all those practices they threw at me I tried to give to all the younger guys as I got older.
Was there a season or a time period in college where you felt like things really clicked and you saw a big jump in your play on the field?
I remember spring ball of my redshirt sophomore year after the season … everything just clicked for me. I feel like I just knew where I needed to be and so everything became like second nature. So it was more of a make a play, then focusing on taking two steps and get enough field or the fundamentals. So when everything started clicking, as I grew confident into my fundamentals, everything was just simpler.
Everyone has an escape from football. As much as they love it there’s other stuff they’re passionate about and stuff that they like to spend time on. What would you say is your kind of escape from football?
Definitely watching documentaries. I love those. I like watching like war movies or any type of history to take my mind off of football and show that there’s a lot more going on in the world than just football. So just learning about the history of everything and just gaining the knowledge. I just like learning new things.
How would you describe your leadership style and how did it evolve during your time at Michigan State?
At first my leadership style was just a lead by example. I’m not going to say much, but everybody like gravitates to me by how hard I work. So I would say I’m a lead by example guy. But as I got older, Coach D wanted me to talk more and get out there in front of the team more and which became easier because I grew confident into my speaking ability. And at first I wasn’t confident in that because of the background I came from. And as I got older, as I got more educated, it became easier. I feel like I’m a vocal guy now. I’d much rather lead by example, but I am a lot vocal now in my leadership qualities.
How did it feel to be elected a captain last year?
It felt really good as an accomplishment because I knew that my teammates voted me. It would have been different if the coaches voted me in, but I knew that all my teammates did, so I felt good about that. It was a great feeling because I know that those guys look up to me.
Was graduating from college something you take a lot of pride in and if so, why?
Oh yeah, I feel like still to this day, that’s my biggest accomplishment. Maybe until draft day. Because nobody in my family ever graduated. Not even my uncles, my aunts, let alone my mom and my dad. So that was the biggest accomplishment. That’s the biggest accomplishment I had in my life to this point … I never really felt like I accomplished stuff. I knew I went to a D1 school, I played football, I got sacks, you know what I mean? I’m considered a good D tackle in a college football, but I didn’t really feel like I accomplished something until (graduation day) came, and I felt like I really accomplished something. So that was a great feeling. I was happy for a long time.
There is a quote from you where you’re talking about coming from where you come from, you pretty much have to make the right moral decision every day to get to where you want to go and not to get sucked into crime or gangs or whatever it might be. Just explain why you think you’ve been able to make those right decisions time after time?
I think about that all the time actually. How did I make it all the way here? And then like you said, it came from all those times where you got to make a right moral decision. And I feel like that moral decision comes from just what drives you. And I feel like my family drives me. One of my earliest memories is my mom crying. And I was like, you know what I mean? I want to make that a better spot for her. I want to make everything better for her. So whenever there’s a decision that needs to be made and I got to think morally, I think back to my family and how I got to support them because they need it. And that drives me.
What do you want to accomplish at the combine?
Just show that I’m athletic, I move well and I’m going to give you 110 all the time.
People like to say that the film speaks for itself. What do you think your film says about you?
That I’m going to give you 110 every day. I swear, I promise you that. I want to be great. I don’t just want to just be average.
How much progress have you made since arriving here at EXOS ?
My body’s changing a little bit. I still feel like I’m gaining a lot more muscle. My numbers are going up every week, and in my 40 time, my cone drill, my 5-yard shuttle. So I feel like I’m doing something right because my numbers are getting better every week.
Nutrition is obviously a big part of it. How has your nutrition evolved from high school to college to now?
High school you probably eat whatever you want. College, it was a little more you thinking, in the back of your head I got to eat a little better but you still don’t know what’s the best thing to eat. And when you’re here they’re basically putting everything out like what this food does for you and what this does for you. So being able to have those meals three times a day … you can feel the difference. Like I had a shake on the weekend and I just felt real sluggish and I ain’t never felt like that in a long time. That’s because I’m used to eating what (they give us), which is great carbs, protein and fiber and they really help, you can feel the difference when you’re out there working out.
Was there a game at Michigan State where you felt like you were just in peak performance mode where you felt like you were really unblockable? Is there any one game that sticks out in your head as you just feeling at your best?
Arizona State, I remember when I clicked my junior year. But I had a few of those games where it clicked, Maryland, and this year I feel like. I liked Wake Forest too, that was my last one as a Spartan, so I had to give it my all before I left. Yeah, there’s a few of them. I can’t really think. Maybe Ohio State I was clicking for a while. Wisconsin. I had a nice couple of games this year, but if I had to choose one it would probably be Maryland, I felt unblockable that whole game.
What do you find yourself kind of leaning on when things get hard?
Definitely my family. Everybody back in Chicago that’s depending on me, not actually depending on me, but wanting me to succeed. And I feel like I got to prove to those guys I can do it. And I feel like it’s just a drive in you, you got to have that want and I got that want to be great. It ain’t just … I don’t want to be average. So if I feel like I’m folding out, that means I’m being an average so I got to be great. And that’s just something that drives me.
The final season at Michigan State didn’t go exactly how you guys wanted, but the leadership was strong. You kept that team kind of pulling in the right direction. How important was it to you to still be that senior leader for the team?
Oh yeah, that’s just me. I’ve been knocked down a lot in life. Like I told my guys there at State, you’re always going to be judged on the next thing you do. So I mean last week happened. We got another week and another week after this. And that just that improved them into wanting to be great because I’m going to give you my all every day. And they see that and they see that there wasn’t no hold-up in me and no hold-up in anybody and that really carry over to the team because nobody really folded when we had those bad games or horrible games.
Where do you think your confidence comes from?
I’m not really a cocky guy. I’m a humble dude. So my confidence comes within. I don’t really share it a lot, but I really feel like nobody can hold me or block me. It feels weird to even say that because that ain’t even me. But it’s all the confidence is within and I’m a humble dude so you ain’t going to hear me say that often but nobody really can hold me.
Why do you love football today?
Because I remember being young and just wanting to play football because I wanted to be active. … I still just want to have fun with it rather than be considered as a NFL player by somebody walking on the street. It all comes within, like the fun that I have, the wanting to be the best player ever. I remember that feeling watching Michael Vick, I want to be like him. So that’s what drives me when I’m watching it and wanting to play football.
If you could give one piece of advice to high school athletes out there, what would it be?
You can do whatever, anything you want to do. You can do it. The right mindset, good circle, you can do it.
Photo Credit: Swell House Media
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