Is it finally Bennett Williams and the Oregon defense's time to shine?
After a few delays getting the show on the road, the Ducks defense rolls into Corvallis with stellar reviews for a recent performance
EUGENE — Bennett Williams was searching for something.
He cracked a grin and then, after a brief pause to corral the words he’s been looking for, began painting the picture.
“This week I’m starting to see it,” Williams said. “This defense can be so good and we're starting to play with that fast pace, that confidence where it just happens and you know that the person next to you knows what they're doing, so then you have full trust in what you're doing. And it's really starting to click right now.”
Williams told The I-5 Corridor this days before the team’s 37-34 loss to Washington, a game in which the Ducks allowed 522 yards and big play after big play. And while his assessment may have missed the mark in the moment, the inkling wasn’t entirely off, either.
Just one week later, after the defense endured days of condemnation, they got that “signature” performance in a 20-17 win over Utah.
Better late than never.
The defense poured water over Utah’s physical ground attack, dousing Utes’ quarterback Cameron Rising who, after having his way in a pair of big brother wins over Oregon last season, looked entirely mortal Saturday, throwing for 4.5 yards per attempt, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
For the first time all season, Oregon’s defense saved its offense, and with it kept Rose Bowl hopes alive and well. Williams, of course, was at the center of it all, where he’s been all season for this defense, accepting the brunt of the blame for losses — whether deserved or not — and making crucial plays in the wins.
He shadowed Utah’s star tight end Dalton Kincaid up and down Autzen throughout the frigid evening and came away with 14 tackles and a pair of interceptions to show for it.
“Those big moments, I feel like I’m made for that,” Williams said postgame, still clutching the footballs he intercepted, one under each arm.
He went on: “Last week, I wasn’t able to make the play, but as long as you own it… That’s what enabled me this week to go out there and not have that fear.”
It’s not a stretch to call Williams the spokesperson for this iteration of Ducks football. No player has been rolled out to the media more frequently, nor delivered more insightful words.
How did he become so comfortable in front of the cameras? His mother Dani Slavin insists it was her and her husband Garey Williams’ decision that Bennett and his brother Evan enroll in drama classes throughout middle school.
Although, she added, Williams might be mad at her for mentioning it.
The Williams brothers often earned lead rolls. The Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast are some of her personal favorite performances from Bennett.
Rest assured, she has the old videotapes ready to queue up if need be.
“It so helps with your confidence in front of people,” she said. “If you can sing and dance in front of your friends, you're gonna have a level of confidence in front of anyone when that microphone is in front of your face. I think that helped out, or at least I'm going to take credit for that.”
Williams agreed, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
“She would love to think so because she put me through it and she told me that it was going to pay off in the future,” he said. “But I do actually think it has. Being able to be in front of a lot of people, there's fear that comes with that, especially at a young age, in middle school, but to be able to put on costumes and makeup and all this crap and be okay with slipping up or being embarrassed in front of people that’s fine because it's just who you are.
“I had to sing in front of people. I'm not a good singer.”
Garey and Dani believed everyone in their household should be allowed to speak their opinion, regardless of age. They wrote off any modicum of a seen-but-not-heard mentality with their children.
“For Bennett, even as a young child, he's always had a strong sense of fairness…,” Slavin said. “He struggled sometimes with hierarchical or patriarchal types of systems where you, ‘Do what I say,’ and don't get the ability to have your opinion be welcomed or heard and I think here, coach Lanning and staff are hearing, and allowing them to have a voice.”
Under Lanning, Williams has blossomed as a function of the approach’s freedom. It’s just as much a function of personal growth.
A Bay Area kid, Williams starred at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California, alongside former Oregon running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio.
Williams began his college career at Illinois in 2017. Head coach Lovie Smith’s defense lacked depth, springing Williams into a starting role as a freshman. And with the instant opportunity came instant production — Williams was named a freshman All-American.
That’s when things took their first major turn.
Viewed as a cornerstone of the Fighting Illini program entering year two, he was later kicked off the team for violating team rules.
"I think he may have gotten a little big-headed," Garey said. "His time management
skills went out the window."
“Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path,” Williams later wrote as part of a Twitter statement.
In this case his path forward, in a sense, meant a step backwards: A return to the Bay Area, a reunion with an old family friend and, above all, a clean slate.
Immediately succeeding the Illinois fallout, Williams called Tim Tulloch, an old family friend he and his brother had trained with in the high school who serves as head coach at the College of San Mateo — a JUCO football powerhouse.
“Hey, coach, this is not working out,” he told Tulloch. “I need a fresh start and I’d like to come home.”
“I’ve always kind of been in his corner,” Tulloch said of Williams. “I think it was the right place at the right time for him… Looking at moving forward, that's all that mattered, and we were here to be a part of it.”
Tulloch recently received a call from a scout with one of the top teams in the NFL.