PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — With Super Bowl Sunday approaching, almost every football fan in the country is making preparations to tune in.
Sam Williams, a defensive end in Pitt’s Class of 2020, will be one of them. But he wasn’t always.
The three-star prospect from Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida will be enrolling at Pitt this summer after choosing the Panthers over offers from Syracuse and USF.
But the 6-foot-4, 210-pound athlete didn’t start out as a football junkie. To hear him describe it, he was one of the folks tuning into the big game more for the commercials than anything.
“I mean, I watched the Super Bowl, but I didn’t watch a lot of it, you know what I mean?” Williams said in an exclusive interview with Pittsburgh Sports Now in his Florida home in November.
Williams came up in an athletic family. His father played basketball. With his natural size, he could have pursued any number of athletic opportunities, and he tried a lot of them.
“I did a lot of sports when I was younger,” Williams said. “Growing up I was always like the tallest in my class and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you should play basketball.’ Then when I played it, I liked it, but it wasn’t really my passion. … I did swimming, too. I was a swimmer. I played a little bit of basketball and soccer and baseball.”
That changed in sixth grade, when a friend suggested that Williams give football a try.
“To me, I didn’t really know much about football, but since most of my friends were doing it, I was like I’m just going to join now – and the rest is history,” he said. “I fell in love with the sport ever since.”
For Williams, the physicality of the sport was a draw, and so was the bond that he formed with his teammates. Though his father provided a connection to basketball, Williams found a different familial connection through football: brothers.
“Just playing with your brothers and having that brotherhood on a team, that’s something I never really had before,” Williams said. “That’s probably what hooked me on football.”
Of course, it’s still a long journey from the sixth grade to a Power Five scholarship offer. To start, his coaches put Williams at safety.
“That didn’t work out too well,” Williams said, laughing. He also played a bit of tight end, but eventually settled in at the defensive end position by high school.
That’s also about the time that he began to realize that football might be a big part of his future.
“I would probably say around sophomore year of high school, I was kind of thinking about what I wanted to do, and I knew I liked football a lot,” Williams said. “I was thinking to myself; I could take this thing really far as long as I keep working, I know I could get somewhere with it.”
That process started to play out when Williams was a junior and colleges started to reach out to him.
“I still wasn’t really sure if anything was going to happen for me because nobody really knew anything about me until I put my junior year film up and Syracuse came, and they liked my film and offered me, then Pitt came, and they offered me,” Williams said. “Then the ball just started rolling, and everything started happening so fast.”
When Pitt came, it was lead South Florida recruiter Charlie Partridge that knocked on Williams’ door. Partridge had a head start on getting to know Williams. He already knew his high school coach. Kirk Hoza was on Partridge’s staff at Florida Atlantic when the was the head coach there from 2014-16. Hoza also knew all about Pitt, being a Slippery Rock alum and a Pittsburgh native.
“[Hoza] talked to me about coach Partridge before I got to meet him,” Williams said. “He said he was a really genuine guy and that he has a really good relationship with him. When I went up to Pitt and my coach was actually born in Pittsburgh, so it was a pretty cool connection. He told me about the city and how beautiful it was and how the people are hard-working.”
Partridge quickly established a rapport with the young defensive end, and will also be his position coach in addition to being the area recruiter.
“What I like about him is he’s genuine,” Williams said. “He doesn’t try to force things on you. Like, when I went to the school, he told me everything about Pitt and everything they had to offer. He wasn’t really forcing anything, and that’s pretty much what I liked about him the most.”
Williams knew that he had found his home and in April, he became the first player to give Pat Narduzzi his verbal commitment in Pitt’s Class of 2020.
“It was crazy because I was still new to the recruiting process, so I didn’t really know how all of this stuff worked,” Williams said. “But then I saw everyone else committing and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I can’t wait to play with these guys. They are going to be my brothers at the next level.’ So, it was a pretty cool feeling knowing that I was the first one to commit.”
Since then, he’s helped bring in a bunch of South Florida athletes, as he’ll be joined in the class by defense end Emmanuel Belgrave (Miami Southridge), wide receiver Aydin Henningham (Deerfield Beach) and defensive back Jahvonte Royal (St. Thomas Aquinas).
“It’s cool knowing that a lot of the guys in the class are from Florida,” Williams said. “We have a lot of stuff in common. We have a lot of talent, and we come from one of the best states that has high school football. It’s pretty cool.”
When Williams gets to Pitt this summer, the thing he’s going to be the most focused on is improving his size and strength. He followed closely the progress of formally undersized defensive ends like Haba Baldonado — who hosted Williams on his official visit — and John Morgan, who both had solid seasons for Pitt as redshirt freshmen in 2019.
“I guess I consider myself one of the smaller defensive ends, so once I put on weight, I’ll be able to compete with everyone else and just get better,” he said.
Williams is spending time with a trainer this summer to jump-start that process.
“I’m just going to be in that weight room every day,” Williams said. “I’m going to gain as much weight as possible, so when I get up there, I will have some strength when I go. I’m probably going to get with a trainer and work on some position skill stuff, agility, like speed work, and all that type of stuff. …
“I’ve learned not to quit on yourself. There were times where I wasn’t sure if I was going to get that D-I scholarship or not. But that one day when the coaches just came to my school and offered me it was crazy. I never would have thought that that would have happened. So, this whole process really taught me to not quit on myself and keep working. If you keep working and working, one day, something could just happen.”