Marcus Williams is outstanding with his ball skills. We're taking advantage of the opportunities that are there and converting on those opportunities, rather than dropping the ball.’ —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Just two years ago, the Utah football team hardly knew what an interception was. The Utes came up with just three picks for the entire season, one of the lowest totals in school history, and ended up in a tie for 119th among FBS football teams — dead-last in the country.
This year is a different story entirely. Already, just four games in, the Utes have seven interceptions, which ranks 18th-best in the nation and is a big reason why the school has climbed to No. 5 in the country with a 4-0 record.
Leading the way for the Utes is sophomore safety Marcus Williams, who has matched the Utes’ 2013 total with three interceptions, which puts him in a tie for 10th in the nation and first in the Pac-12.
“We’re capitalizing on the opportunities,’’ says Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “In years past we’ve had opportunities and haven’t always come away with the catch.’’
One of the keys to more interceptions is that the majority of the players in the defensive backfield have experience as receivers, enabling them to track the ball out of the quarterback’s hand and anticipate where it will end up.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Williams was primarily a receiver in high school, as were fellow defensive backs Cory Butler-Byrd and Dominique Hatfield.
“We’re very athletic on the back end with guys who have receiver experience who have excellent hands as well,’’ Whittingham says. “Marcus Williams is outstanding with his ball skills. We're taking advantage of the opportunities that are there and converting on those opportunities, rather than dropping the ball.’’
Whittingham says the Utes are happy to have Williams manning the secondary at free safety, along with strong safety Tevin Carter, and cornerbacks Hatfield, Butler-Byrd and Justin Thomas.
“He’s a heck of an athlete, he was a multi-sport guy in high school, a tremendous basketball player,’’ said Whittingham of Williams. “He just lacked a little bit of weight last year — he’s still a little underweight right now — but he’s made a lot of progress. He’s really athletic and has great instincts at the free safety spot.’’
Williams came in last year and made an immediate impact, earning the backup free safety spot behind Carter and then taking over when Carter went out with a season-ending injury. Williams came into camp No. 1 this year and has done everything the coaches hoped for from the free safety position.
Whittingham compared Williams to Robert Johnson, the Utes' all-conference safety who played on the undefeated 2008 team and later in the NFL. “He’s a lot like Robert Johnson," the coach said. "He has the same instincts and angles that Robert Johnson took.’’
Williams is one of those guys who’d rather do his talking on the field than on the sideline after practice. He answers questions with “yes sir,’’ but won’t go into much detail about his exploits.
His take on the Utes’ improvement on interceptions this year is, “We just practice every day, go catch the ball, and have continuous preparation.’’ He said the Utes do ball drills every day and adds, “We emphasize turnovers in practice and I guess that translates to the field.’’
Williams got his first interception of the season in the opening game against Michigan when he picked off a pass and returned it 10 yards. The next week against Utah State, he intercepted a Chuckie Keeton pass at the Ute 19-yard line, stopping an Aggie threat in the second quarter. Then two weeks ago at Oregon, Williams picked off a long pass by Jeff Lockie and returned it 52 yards up the sideline to set up Utah’s fifth touchdown of the game.
Williams grew up in Corona, California, the “Inland Empire,’’ approximately 45 miles east of Los Angeles. He excelled in football, basketball and track at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and didn’t consider any other schools besides Utah.
“I loved it here, the family environment, everything about it, the players, coaches, everything,’’ he says of his decision to choose Utah.
When asked about other schools that offered scholarships, he deflected it more than once by simply saying, “I chose Utah,’’ before acknowledging he had offers from other Pac-12 schools, including Washington and Cal, this week’s opponent.
While he’s aware that the Bears feature one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Jared Goff, Williams isn’t shaking in his boots worrying about the opposition this week.
“We need to keep playing how we’re playing, lock down the receivers, make sure we stay on our guys, watch enough film and be prepared for the game,’’ he said. “I expect a great team — 5-0, you never overlook another team. We need to come out strong, prepare and practice and be ready for the game.’’
Williams has been called “football smart” by safeties coach Morgan Scalley, because of all the preparation he does in studying film of opposing teams each week. But Williams is also an excellent student, having achieved a 4.0 GPA in high school and doing well academically at the U., where he is studying civil engineering.
“It’s a priority for me,’’ he said. “My parents always told me to get your schoolwork done first and then you can go play sports. School was always more important to them, so that’s what I always tried to do.’’