NASHVILLE — Bruce Lussier once looked at a young Joejuan Williams as just another, semi-talented kid.
“He was just a little skinny kid who came to us from the public schools,” said Lussier, who coached Williams at Nashville’s Father Ryan High, of his first impression of the young Williams.
Then during his sophomore year, buried on the depth chart, there was one particular play that Williams made that started opening eyes.
“(Joejuan) had a pick-six and ran it back 60-plus yards, making across the field moves and making several people miss,” Lussier said. “When he went to the house with that pick ... you could tell.”
The city of Nashville is a special place to Williams. The Patriots rookie cornerback was born here, raised here, starred at Vanderbilt University here, and this past April got to realize his lifelong dream here, hearing his name and walking across the stage at the NFL Draft right downtown on Broadway.
This week, the rookie is the talk of his old hometown, returning with the Patriots for joint practices with the Tennessee Titans as a hero, a local success story who beat the odds.
The “skinny” kid is now 6-foot-3, 212 pounds. Williams possesses a unique combination of size and athleticism that you rarely find even in the NFL, and this weekend Williams will suit up in just his second professional football game in front of his local fans as he works to carve out his place in the league.
Williams grew up in a single-parent household with his older brother Deontre, and throughout their childhood they bounced around different public housing projects in Nashville as their mother worked to provide for the family.
After attending a public middle school in the city, Willams was enrolled at Father Ryan, a private Catholic high school in south Nashville. He received need-based financial aid and joined the football program.
After “the play” and his sophomore season, Williams’ stock quickly began to rise. Between his sophomore and junior seasons he hit a growth spurt and developed the rare combination of height and athleticism that makes him special.
Recognizing his potential, college coaches from all of the big schools started reaching out, hoping to get in on the ground floor before his game caught up to his projections.
All of the attention caught Lussier and his staff off guard.
“I’d been in the game a long time, and I don’t remember people starting offering kids who hadn’t even played,” Lussier said.
“I had a hard time understanding why he was getting these offers. They started to mount and he had one from every SEC school. The big-time coaches were stopping by to see him, and it was a shocker to us because he hadn’t even been on the field.”
The coaches’ instincts were right. After taking over as one of Father Ryan’s starting cornerbacks a junior, Williams blew up.
He enjoyed an All-State junior season, and even after he was declared ineligible for his senior season due to residency issues after his family moved again, he committed to Vanderbilt, where he continued his development into one of the top cornerbacks in the nation.
“I thought he would struggle with his speed. He wasn’t the fastest kid on our squad and he wasn’t the fastest at Vanderbilt, but his length is really what set him apart,” Lussier said.
“He can make up ground quick being as tall and long as he is. He had a great SEC run, did an outstanding job, I’m sure Vanderbilt would love him back, but what a great opportunity for him.”
Lussier coached a couple of other NFL players during his 45-year coaching career, most notably former Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates. But having a chance to watch Williams grow from that skinny little kid into an All-SEC cornerback and then a second-round NFL draft pick has been special.
He said he’s planning on going to Saturday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, and if Williams keeps working hard like he has, he’s confident he has what it takes to enjoy a successful NFL career.
“It’s exciting, you know in your heart that you had a little to do with his development, and I don’t know if what we did is what got him over the hump, but it’s all cumulative,” Lussier said.
“I’m like a proud papa, having one of your own make the big time, I’m really proud of him.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.