The largest military base in the United States, J. Cole, and crime. If you were to ask a person from North Carolina or the surrounding areas what are some of the first things that come to mind when you think about the city of Fayetteville, one of those three would repeatedly be mentioned.
In the midst of it all, the one shining light in the city over the past half-decade has been the ascension of the football program at Fayetteville State. Already with six wins and counting this season, the Broncos are in the middle of one of their best five-year runs in program history. Since hiring head coach Richard Hayes in 2016, the school has gone on to win 30 games that include three consecutive appearances in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Championship with the program on the brink of their fourth.
Throughout its rich history, the program has produced players that have gone on to play at the next level. Last season while scouting at the Tropical Bowl in Kissimmee, Florida, offensive tackle Kion Smith was one of the biggest standouts of the week of practices and in the game. The former All-CIAA offensive tackle went on to sign with the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad as an undrafted free agent. A deal that included the most guaranteed money of any undrafted player that the team signed last spring. Smith is now a part of the Miami Dolphins practice squad.
The last time a player from the program has been drafted? 1976.
Running back James Godwin was drafted with the sixth pick in the 16th round by the New York Jets. It’s a near half-century record that everyone within the program is well aware of and a streak that could be in danger this year.
Prior to the season, something that I wanted to do was highlight HBCU players across the country who are well on the NFL radar. Creating a Top-40 prospect list for the 2022 NFL Draft that only included seniors and draft-eligible players that were deemed high throughout the league, I stumbled across Joshua Williams. Having no prior knowledge of the Broncos cornerback, I was tipped off by Brian Frierson, who’s now the linebackers coach at CIAA foe Chowan, and Williams’ former personal trainer.
He described him as an athletic specimen that somehow has remained a diamond in the rough. That was up until the beginning stages of the summer when he began to receive notoriety as he was included on the preseason Top-250 Watch List for the Senior Bowl and the No. 6 overall prospect on my preseason Top-40 HBCU prospects list.
This week, I traveled to Fayetteville to get to know the player under the helmet who has a chance to be the first player drafted in 46 years from the program.
Long before his lengthy resume at Fayetteville State came about, Williams was a hometown kid, that wasn’t always all about football.
“I’ve always loved football. I started playing at about 10 years old. It was football and track at first then I started playing basketball. Those were the sports that I was playing through middle school. I actually started off as a running back up until high school, then I was a receiver up until my senior year. It’s crazy because, in high school, I actually was a better track athlete than football.”
Williams mentioned to me that he pretty much did every sprinting event imaginable while at Jack Britt High School, including the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, and the long jump. The Fayetteville product also was quick to relay that his best time in the 100-meter dash was 10.68, which came during his senior year of high school.
That speed carried over onto the football field, but his path to stardom in the Division II ranks wasn’t always crystal clear. He suffered a somewhat expected bump in the road along the way that he admitted was his own wrongdoing because of letting his athletic success and the lovefest of the recruiting process blind him from what he needed to do academically.
“I didn’t really expect to play college football. I was actually thinking about going into the Army or something. I just wasn’t focused.”
The lack of focus led him to Palmetto Prep Academy.
A small prep school based in Columbia, South Carolina, it’s a post-graduate program that came into existence in 2011. Forced to do a semester there, Williams didn’t regret anything about his brief stay in a foreign area.
“I was a D-II qualifier and I ended up choosing Fayetteville State as a result.”
Back where it all began, playing in his home city seems like a written script of a story that he couldn’t have predicted the ending to. Racing through the lunch hall with plenty of noise in the background of college students quickly devouring their meals before their next assigned task to get to, Williams repeatedly uttered how it was so great to play in his home city.
Talking extensively about his family, he spoke glowingly of his dad.
“Right now, I don’t have my keys because I can’t find them, so I’m going to have to call him,” he uttered through a bunch of laughter.
Those are the types of perks that come with playing at home.
Since signing with the Broncos in 2018, Williams has become a staple of the program and one that his teammates and coaches have come to respect, but Williams still kept a chip on his shoulder entering what likely could be his final with the program. Left off of the preseason All-CIAA first team, it’s something that sticks in the back of his mind each Saturday when he rolls the No. 2 jersey over his shoulder pads and laces his cleats up.
Wasting little time at the beginning stages of the season, Williams was named the CIAA Defensive Back of the Week after the Broncos’ first two contests that included a stat line of 15 tackles, three passes defensed, and a pick-six against Elizabeth City State. Through the first seven games of the season, the redshirt junior corner is third in the league in passes defensed (12) and interceptions (3).
That motivation has remained as Williams still only believes that he’s scratching the surface of what he could become with more experience. Still in the beginning stages of playing the position, he spent his lone prep season at Palmetto Prep Academy as a free safety.
With a litany of NFL scouts hovering around his position drills at practice daily with their notepad and pens actively jotting down notes, I positioned myself as one and wanted to ask him what are a few traits that immediately come to mind when describing himself as a player.
“Athleticism, competitiveness, and mental fortitude no matter if things are going good or if it’s going bad."
Both circumstances are what he’s experienced over the past five years, even going back to the tail end of his high school career. Williams even admitted that the way some things have transpired over the past few months have been “surreal”, and it’s not even just an on-the-field thing.
Over the summer when the NCAA approved (July 1) the name, image, and likeness policy (NIL) that allowed collegiate student-athletes to partner with certain companies for monetary value, Williams was one of the first small-school prospects to cash in. Fayetteville native, former Bronco football player, and CEO of Fuddruckers, Nicholas Perkins sought out Williams. Also the owner of a local Church’s Chicken on nearby Yadkin Road, he wanted the Fayetteville State star to be the poster boy of his local establishment.
In a written statement, Perkins mentioned that, “Joshua brings a level of determination and perseverance to the table that just can’t be taught,” Perkins says. “To be honest, in a lot of ways he reminds me of myself.”
Williams mentioned that, “I kind of knew it was coming maybe three or four weeks before it happened, but it’s a blessing and hopefully there’s more to come.”
NFL scouts definitely see that there’s more to come with Williams’ game and I wanted to talk more defensive back techniques with him.
In the league when talking about cornerbacks, they are usually classified as press-man, off-man, or zone players. Asking him which type he was, he said: “I think I’m absolutely a do-it-all corner. Here at Fayetteville State, we have to be able to do-it-all. That’s something that my coaches harp on. Not just being one or the other. Making sure that we can do all of it and I truly believe that I can do all of it. There’s nothing that I’m uncomfortable doing.”
Being that he’s a Fayetteville product, I had to end our chat by discussing his relationship with J. Cole, another 910 product and award-winning music artist. Williams lit up when talking about him and said that one of the many songs that he plays at maximum volume levels through his headphones prior to every game is “Workout Plan”, among others.
Checking in with a handful of NFL scouts that scout the area, Williams had late-round to undrafted free agent grades across the board for all of them, but live scouting and his production through this season has seen them add lots more to his pre-draft portfolio since that point.
Far from finalizing their grade on the Division II standout and with an invitation to the inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl in hand already (Feb. 19), an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl or Reese’s Senior Bowl could provide him the opportunity necessary to continue to improve on what’s already been an impressive fall season and possibly becoming the first Bronco player drafted since 1976.