VU tackle an expected first-round pick

Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 10:03pm

Chris Williams is strolling through a hallway of Vanderbilt’s McGugin Center on a perfect April afternoon with his new wife by his side and a smile on his face.

He cordially greets people, cracks jokes and handles media interviews with a cheerful approach.

In less than a week, he’s going to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and will, for all intents and purposes, become an instant millionaire.

These days, it’s good to be Chris Williams.

The 6-foot-7, 320-pound former Vanderbilt offensive tackle is headed for a big day Saturday. Draft analysts predict he will most likely be picked No. 12 overall by the Denver Broncos or No. 14 overall by the Chicago Bears.

Both teams need help at left tackle, and Williams is a hot prospect after a college career in which he became one of the best at his position in the Southeastern Conference. Some consider him the best Vanderbilt has ever produced.

If Williams is nervous, it doesn’t show. He plans to play a round of golf Saturday morning before gathering with friends and family at a downtown Nashville establishment to watch the draft.

“I’m just real excited,” Williams said. “I just want to get with a team and find my home, where I’m going to be for the next several years and maybe for the rest of my career.”

MAKING A CASE

Who knew Williams would be in this lofty position when he arrived at Vanderbilt in 2003 as a 245-pound tackle out of Glynn, La.?

VU offensive-line coach Robbie Caldwell had an inkling and joked that Williams was “a walking millionaire but doesn’t even know it.”

By 2006, Williams weighed more than 300 pounds. By 2007, he was 320. Starting both years at left tackle, he became one of the top players in the SEC and allowed only two quarterbacks sacks in 1,558 snaps.

He also became the first Vanderbilt offensive lineman since 1984 to earn All-SEC recognition from the league’s coaches.

During Williams’ overpowering 2007 season, it wasn’t uncommon for opposing teams to move their best pass rusher to the other side of the field in order to stay away from Williams.

Not only is Williams a behemoth, he’s been labeled by Caldwell as “the smartest player I’ve ever coached.”

“He’s smart, understands the position and understands the game,” added Tony Pauline, NFL Draft analyst for SportsIllustrated.com.

With the draft on the horizon, Williams says he has nothing left to prove.

“I think I’ve made a great case,” he said. “I played in the Senior Bowl, went to the Combine, did Pro Day, been on visits for the past two weeks. I’ve done about all I can. No complaints from me.”

GETTING MEANER

Some people do have complaints, however.

The knock on Williams is a pass-blocking specialist who isn’t a nasty or effective run blocker. Read any evaluation of Williams this spring, and it’s a recurring theme.

“Without a doubt, he does have a passive style,” Pauline said.

Wrote ESPN.com: “He has a bit too much finesse to his game at this point.”

Williams disagrees. He quickly points out that Vanderbilt’s pass-oriented spread offense forced him to become more proficient as a pass blocker.

“Our offense wasn’t exactly a power offense,” he said.

As for the issue of meanness, Williams simply chuckles.

“You can ask people I played against,” he said. “Line up across from me and find out how mean I am. People don’t think I’m mean because of the way I come off when you meet me, maybe. The person I am on the field and the person I am off the field are two completely different people.”

True enough, Williams is an easygoing and affable sort. Marissa Love found that out a few years ago when Williams and some Commodore teammates ate dinner at a Nashville steakhouse where she was waiting tables.

As Williams was leaving, Love asked a friend to give him her phone number.

“I thought he was cute and didn’t want to let him pass me by,” Love said.

Williams called her the next day, and the rest is history. They were married April 5 in Lakeland, La., near Williams’ hometown.

Since then, Williams has continued to speak with interested NFL teams and conduct media interviews. With the latter, he’s been in typical form.

During an interview with a Denver television station, he removed his two false front teeth and smiled at the camera. While speaking with The City Paper this week, he joked that the only way he won’t be drafted Saturday is “if I go out and knock off a liquor store or something.”

ELITE COMPANY

Assuming Williams stays out of jail, he isn’t expected to be available for long Saturday once the draft begins.

“He’s probably a top 16 guy,” Pauline said. “I’ll be surprised if he gets past Chicago. They desperately need a left tackle.”

Williams admits he would welcome an opportunity to play in Chicago or Denver, but isn’t jumping to conclusions.

“I just want to play,” he said. “What’s the point of having a preference when you don’t get to pick, anyway? You’re just setting yourself up.”

Left tackles are in abundance for this draft, led by Michigan’s Jake Long, who signed a contract with the Miami Dolphins this week and will be No. 1 overall pick Saturday.

Other top prospects include Ryan Clady of Boise State, Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh and Gosder Cherilus of Boston College.

Williams knows the competition is fierce but isn’t lacking for confidence.

“I personally feel like I’m the best left tackle in the class, but nobody really knows how teams rank players,” he said. “I’ve talked with some teams that feel like I’m the best left tackle prospect in the draft.”

These days, it’s good to be Chris Williams.

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