DURHAM — In December, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe asked Johnny Williams to move from wide receiver to defensive back.
The junior wideout had spent two seasons working into the rotation and earning a reputation as a playmaker, with 30 catches for 327 yards as a freshman, the third-highest single-season freshman total in program history. He followed that with 31 catches for 385 yards in 2009.
Presented with the move, Williams never waffled, saying, "Sounds good."
A defensive back in high school, the change seemed to invigorate the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Williams, whose stocky stature resembles a corner more than a wide receiver. He saw clearly, with the emergence of junior Donovan Varner and sophomore Conner Vernon, there would be fewer opportunities to catch passes this season.
So why not catch them on defense?
"He's a starter day one as a corner," Cutcliffe said in March.
Since Williams accepted the challenge, the task has been to help him transition to a new position where coaches say his speed, flexibility and competitiveness should turn him into an elite ACC cornerback. They hope he quickly adapts to backpedaling after years of sprinting forward, adding the athletic presence and maturity the secondary needs with the departure of senior Leon Wright.
Cutcliffe, who enters his third season at Duke, has said the Blue Devils will take a new, aggressive approach on defense this season with defensive coordinator Marion Hobby making the calls. Generating a stronger pass rush from the front seven is a priority, which will place more responsibility on the secondary.
Bolstering the secondary was one reason Cutcliffe asked Williams to move. He joins a unit with just one returning senior in Chris Rwabukamba. Junior Matt Daniels is the only other returning starter.
"We were kind of excited to have him on our side because he was a tough guy to cover," Rwabukamba said. "Now the offense, we make fun of them all the time. They can't get anything on us. We took one of their best players."
Duke defensive back coach Derek Jones spent two years watching Williams frustrate cornerbacks and was glad when he arrived on defense. Williams used his athletic gifts - fleet feet and swift hands - to get the best of Duke corners during many practices.
Jones said Williams' overall quickness gives him a good chance to make the transition, one that is not uncommon, though requires a keen focus on footwork and hand techniques.
"From day one to the last day of spring practice, he was as improved as anyone we had back there," Jones said. Williams went home during the winter break and started working on his backpedal. While he may contribute on offense during the season, he concentrated solely on defensive back during spring ball and fell right into the position he played, along with wide receiver, at Leroy High in St. Stephens, Ala.
"It was an easy transition," he said. "A positive transition the way I look at it. To help myself and the team."
Not everything has been easy. Watching film on his new laptop, Williams discovered that he used his hands far too often during one-on-one spring drills. He raised them like a receiver, checking the air for contact.
Defensive backs play the position with their feet first. Using his hands, a receiver's habit to feel for the defender, could result in penalty this season.
To solve the problem, Williams now drills with his hands tied behind his back.
"I try to move my feet before I move my hands," he said. "Because hands will get you in trouble."
As Williams transitions from offense to defense, he has become an active trash talker, which has traditionally been left to wide receivers.
"At receiver, I really didn't talk that much but now, I feel like you have to talk," he said. "If you don't, you're not going to have as much fun."
And he's determined to enjoy the switch.
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