Soon after arriving at Baylor three years ago, Matt Rhule developed his relationship with linebacker Jordan Williams over a ping pong table.
Rhule and some members of his coaching staff challenged any of the players to the game, and Williams volunteered despite having no ping pong experience.
“I never played ping pong a day before they got here,” Williams said. “They kept beating me at it, and I got competitive and started playing every day, and I got really good. (Former Baylor staff member) Rob Dvoracek is probably the best ping pong player I’ve ever met. I never beat him, but I beat Coach Rhule. I can live with that one.”
Rhule disputes Williams’ assertion that he became a better ping pong player than him, saying he could beat him using his cell phone as a paddle.
“When I’m locked in, he can’t do anything,” Rhule grinned. “I could literally beat him with my phone.”
But even in a game of ping pong, Rhule could see how Williams’ competitive gene took over. The fifth-year senior brings a great deal of passion to the linebacking corps and his teammates feed off it.
Baylor’s defense has been one of the best in the Big 12 and a big reason for a 4-0 start. Williams not only contributes with his considerable linebacking skills, but also as a leader who isn’t afraid to speak out when something needs to be said.
“Yeah he’s a great leader, that’s my big brother,” said Baylor sophomore linebacker Terrel Bernard. “He’s one of the main guys that you hear everywhere we go. Games, practice, lifts, everything. He kind of brings us all together and gives us that little extra motivation.”
After coming into the season hampered by an ankle injury, Williams delivered one of his most memorable games in last weekend’s 23-21 win over Iowa State in the Big 12 opener at McLane Stadium.
Williams recorded six tackles and three pass breakups, but his signature play was a second-quarter interception of a Brock Purdy pass. He leaped along the sideline to snag the ball and managed to contort his body just enough to get his feet inbounds.
Everybody at McLane Stadium and the Baylor players were awed by Williams’ acrobatic play as they watched the replay on the video screen.
“They were kind of messing with me, saying that was the most athletic thing they’ve seen me do,” Williams said.
While Rhule enjoyed watching Williams make his first career-interception, it’s the diligence and effort he puts into every practice and game that impresses him the most. Williams was elected a team captain this season because his teammates know how deeply his work ethic inspires them.
“The biggest growth I have seen is his maturity and attention to detail,” Rhule said. “And when I say maturity I don’t just mean as a person. He has been a great, great person all the way along. But his football maturity, the way he takes care of his body now, the way he prepares, the way he does extra. He has just added the physicality and the knowledge and the discipline with those instincts.”
Though the Bears were elated to win their Big 12 opener, Williams instinctively knew they needed to improve in a lot of areas. So he called Rhule late Saturday night to ask him if they could hold a players only meeting the following day.
“This is Saturday night and I am an old man now,” Rhule said. “J-Will called me at 10:45 at night and I am falling asleep. When a player calls you on a Saturday night it is like, ‘Oh no, what can I do for you?’ But he was saying, ‘Coach, we want to have a players only meeting to watch this tape and hold ourselves accountable.’ Lots of guys like to hold other guys accountable, but it’s the guys who hold themselves accountable first and allow others to hold them accountable, and that is where J-Will has just skyrocketed.”
As a team captain, Williams believes it’s important to make his voice heard. If he sees an area that needs improvement, he wants to take action immediately and fix the problem.
“It’s such a big honor to me,” Williams said. “I just really appreciate the trust they have in me to give me this honor. I thank the whole team because I really have a relationship with a lot of people on this team inside and out. Having that C on my chest and knowing I have to be the same person every day, it is what it is.”
Williams certainly wasn’t one of Baylor’s most highly recruited players in a heralded 2015 class. Though he was an all-state linebacker at Paris High School in East Texas, he didn’t get a major college offer until Baylor stepped up shortly before signing day.
After redshirting his first season at Baylor, Williams watched the program forge through a tumultuous year in 2016 after coach Art Briles was fired amid the university’s sexual assault scandal and Jim Grobe was brought in as interim coach.
Williams tried to keep his focus on football and showed his potential when he made his first career start against Oklahoma in Norman in November 2016 after all-Big 12 linebacker Taylor Young was ruled out with an injury two days before the game.
Though the Bears dropped a 45-24 decision to the powerful Sooners, Williams recorded a career-high 14 tackles with nine solo stops.
“It was my first start, and my heart was out of my chest,” Williams said. “I was so nervous that game that after the first drive I had to throw up on the sideline. Once I got over it, it was just football. I didn’t really understand the defense at that moment, I just saw the ball and went to it.”
After Baylor hired Rhule in December 2016, Williams began the adjustment to his third head coach in less than two years. It didn’t take Rhule long to see how passionate Williams was about the game, but the young linebacker had to learn how to control his emotions and develop the technical skill to become a better player.
“The first year here, Coach Rhule kicked me off the field,” Williams said. “I have a very smart mouth and a huge temper when I’m on the field. I’m a very passionate person, so I get very into it. Sometimes I forget where I’m at and I have to calm myself down.
“I was fighting Coach Rhule not to kick me off the field. Everybody was trying to push me off the field, but I would not go. Finally I started learning that if I want to hold people accountable, I have to hold myself accountable. It was a life lesson.”
Williams has appreciated how hard Baylor linebackers coach Mike Siravo has pushed him to develop into the linebacker and leader he can be on and off the field.
“He pushes me every day and I love him for that,” Williams said. “He’s a very loud talker. He’ll go from 0 to 100 really fast. He’s very emotional, but very passionate about football. He wants us to be great.”
Playing in all 12 games and starting three, Williams made 38 tackles with three for loss as a sophomore in 2017 when the Bears finished 1-11. He moved into the starting lineup last season and collected 52 tackles with four for loss as the Bears finished 7-6 and won the Texas Bowl over Vanderbilt.
But he didn’t make the impact that he wanted and vowed to do whatever he could to improve this season.
“To be a starter, you have to act like a starter every day,” Williams said. “You have to have consistency and having the coaches know that I’m doing the right things instead of wondering and questioning. I don’t feel I had the year I should have had last year. I left a lot of plays on the field that I could have made. This year I’m stressing that every game really counts, and I’ve practiced harder than I ever had.”
With Williams hobbled by the ankle injury, Bernard started the first three games at outside linebacker. Williams has made 17 tackles this season, but his numbers should continue to rise now that he’s healthy and back in the starting lineup.
Beyond his statistics, Williams understands what Rhule means when he says players need to take ownership in the football program.
“I started to grow up more and more each year, and I’ve been understanding everything he’s been saying the last couple of years, and taking it into my hands,” Williams said. “He always said it’s a players’ team. I never understood that until this year that if we want to win, it’s on us. The way he’s implementing it, I’m understanding it now and we’re able to pass it on to the younger guys.”
Rhule can recognize when a player has leadership qualities, and Williams has proven that in a variety of ways. He’s also been a diligent student, earning his bachelor’s degree last December.
“J-Will has really been a part of that cultural change here to make that be who we are and what we do,” Rhule said. “No one has bought into the process and come further to buy into the process than he has, which is why he represents us as a captain.”
Williams has never forgotten where he came from. He has a tattoo of the Eiffel Tower replica in Paris, Texas, that was designed after the more famous one in France. He has another tattoo of a man dreaming of being a king with a homage to his hometown in the background.
He draws his own tattoos for artists to put on his skin.
“I love to draw,” Williams said. “I took a drawing class over the summer and I really loved doing it. I’d like to do a graffiti wall someday. I’m very artistic.”
A different kind of artistry is showing up in his play on the football field, and the Bears are better off for it.