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September 8, 2012
That was how it used to be for Ishaq Williams.
Introduced to football by his mother Anastasia Dodson at barely six years old, Williams stood out for the Olney Eagles almost a decade before any college coach knew his name. He used to smile when he played, used to jump around with teammates, used to have fun on the field.
That all returned last weekend as Dodson watched from another continent. She saw the sophomore linebacker nearly double his career tackle total in the 50-10 blowout of Navy. She saw her son rediscover joy in a game that hasn't always delivered it.
"He was more animated than I've seen him in a long, long time," Dodson said. "He was excited about plays others made, excited about plays he made. He's started to enjoy playing again."
If that continues, Notre Dame's defense will truly add the five-star talent it landed in Williams two years ago.
Nicknamed "Quiet Storm" as a kid for the personality that can make Williams appear disengaged and aloof, the linebacker sometimes confounded Notre Dame's coaching staff upon arrival. The attitude was in line with what defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wanted, but the body language wasn't consistently close.
Diaco reached out to both Williams' parents to try to crack the linebacker's exterior.
Dodson talked to Williams about her experience playing high school basketball, being a prep star, then regretting how her career faded at Syracuse. She said Williams gets his steeled demeanor from her, but that attitude didn't always serve her well.
"Some people cave and some people rise above," Dodson said. "It looks like he's rising above."
Father Shaun Williams assured Diaco that his son was fully invested in Notre Dame. During Williams first semester on campus he returned home for senior prom at Lincoln High School, excused from the start of a team community service project. Shaun Williams told Diaco that if his son needed to be back in South Bend the day after prom that he would be.
Seven months later Williams had finished his freshman season, a frustrating fall spent on the sidelines while Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch earned starts. Williams returned home to Brooklyn and kept a low profile, not going out with friends around the neighborhood.
"I could see the fire burning in his head," Shaun Williams said. "He never really talked about it, but I found out the coaches challenged him to be more accountable and really get his butt in gear.
"I told him he's got the opportunity of a lifetime. I told him I'd like to alleviate the pressure but there is no way that I can really do that. When he chose Notre Dame, he didn't make an emotional choice. He made a calculated decision. Now he has to live up to it."
Williams appears on the verge of doing that. Brian Kelly can see a new Williams. So can teammates. Between meetings on the sidelines last Saturday in Dublin, Zack Martin checked out the defense and saw a new No. 11. Lined up next to him, Manti Te'o felt the difference too.
"He's opened up a lot more. He's proving to be the dominant player that he was touted to be," Te'o said. "He was very closed off. He was very shy. Every freshman is shy in a new environment."
Understanding why requires asking more than Williams. He takes pride in the fact people can't read him. He's joked that he should take up poker. Asked if last week's game was the best of his career, Williams said his freshman season "really wasn't anything" and put the Navy performance on top by default.
Williams talks about getting comfortable at Notre Dame, within the football program and in the classroom.
That showed during the spring semester when he texted his grades home. Shaun Williams incentivized academic excellence by rewarding it with new Air Jordan sneakers. His son earned two new pairs.
"I try to strive for good grades all the time," Williams said. "But I'll take the sneakers. But I don't really use that as motivation."
It's tough to tell what does drive Williams as he prepares for Purdue, in effect the second game of the second act of his college career. His freshman season was a "bitter pill" according to his father, one Williams doesn't want to swallow again. But for all the frustration about not playing more, Williams never complained at home, never put blame anywhere else but on his own shoulder pads.
Those pads appear lighter now. Maybe they're unburdened by understanding Diaco's defense. Or by completing the culture change from Brooklyn to South Bend. Or maybe having success for the first time at Notre Dame reminded Williams of running around in the mud with the Olney Eagles.
"I wasn't really satisfied with what I did last year. I wanted to make sure it didn't happen again, make sure I contributed to my team, make sure I get out there and ball," Williams said. "(It's) just putting all you can into everything, whether it's going to class, whether it's waking up every day going to weight lifting, it's a process.
"Attacking the day, not just going through it, attacking it."
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