The Steelers selected Samford defensive lineman Nick Williams in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft. A spot that normally seems low in the draft is really high for a Football Championship Subdivision player who barely played the game in high school.
Post-Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo has a feature in Saturday's edition about Williams, who was nearly literally half the man he was in high school. Williams was a 6-foot-2, 185-pound basketball player his senior year of high school when he decided to give football a shot.
It worked out well. FCS or not, playing one high school season while being grossly undersized for the defensive line but still netting a collegiate offer shows the athletic skill Williams has.
According to Fittipaldo, this is where the adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" came to life for Williams.
In fact, Williams only got recruited to Samford because his father, Frederick, knew Sullivan through State Farm Insurance, where they both worked in the 1980s when Sullivan was out of coaching.
So his dad knew a coach who gave his son a look. And it worked out well. After two years, presumably of hardcore weight training and a lot of food, Williams was a starter at defensive tackle. By the end of his senior season, the guy who only has five years of organized football experience, was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, alongside the genetic freaks from pedigreed schools.
His connections didn't cease to be beneficial there either.
Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell and Samford coach, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Auburn Pat Sullivan, go back 40 years. Sullivan considers Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel one of his best friends.
The fit almost seems too natural to ignore.
Mitchell compares Williams' potential to that of Steve McLendon, the same undrafted player the Steelers just signed to a three-year contract. Mitchell also brings into the realm of comparison Brett Keisel, a Steelers-and-self made franchise defensive end who was also a seventh round draft pick.
Let's not forget the man who wore the number Williams now has, Aaron Smith. He was a Division II defensive tackle selected by the Steelers in the fourth round, and developed into one of the best players in franchise history.
Not to put too much on Williams, but clearly, this franchise has a reputation for developing defensive linemen regardless of their collegiate success or draft spot. In fact, the argument can be made it's possible to take a long-term approach to a defensive line, emphasizing coaching and raw tools over flashy names and stats.
That's what often gets lost in the excitement of the draft; these are kids. Clearly, if recruiting was done for college players when they were 21 or 22 instead of 17 or 18, the players at the major schools would be much different.
Maybe that's essentially the Steelers' strategy.