For the past year, P.J. Fleck has had to sit and wait to see how a couple prized additions to his Gophers football team would start to pan out. Late in July 2017, defensive back Chris Williamson transferred from Florida and defensive tackle O.J. Smith from Alabama, injecting some intrigue into the Minnesota program.
Since both played — albeit briefly — at Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools, might Fleck and the Gophers be getting a pair of hidden gems with major-power pedigrees?
He’s starting to find out in training camp, with both Williamson and Smith getting reps with the first- and second-team defenses. Williamson, 6-0 and 200 pounds, has shown agility and the ability to stick tight to receivers after missing spring practice because of an injury. Smith, 6-2 and 338 pounds, brings that massive size to a defensive line that must replace four-year starter and stalwart Steven Richardson.
Both newcomers are eager to show what they’ve got after sitting out the mandatory year as transfers.
“It’s been a long time for me, because I wasn’t able to participate in spring. I’m more ready than ever,’’ said Williamson, who played in 14 games over two years at Florida. “It feels great to be back on the football field. It really does.’’
Added Smith, whose time at Alabama included one tackle as freshman and another as a sophomore after a redshirt season in 2014: “Oh, I’m ready. I can’t wait.’’
Each player’s route to Minnesota began with the desire for more playing time. And, when Fleck came calling, they liked what they heard.
“I picked Minnesota because I knew I could have a role here,’’ said Smith, who received a waiver for a sixth year from the NCAA, meaning he has two seasons of eligibility with the Gophers. “Me and Coach Fleck talked for a long time. I chose here, and he chose me. I feel comfortable.’’
Williamson, a junior, agreed. “Coach Fleck had a vision that he really expressed to me. … He’s had a history of winning, and I believe he’s going to win here at Minnesota.’’
A standout defensive back and wide receiver at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, Williamson had a bevy of scholarship offers from power programs, including Notre Dame, Auburn, Georgia, Virginia Tech and Michigan. He opted for Florida but started only once as a Gator, in his sophomore season. At Minnesota, he expects to fill various roles.
“I play multiple positions on the back end, and that’s something I pride myself in,’’ Williamson said. “I like to cross-train a lot, which is something you hear with a lot of our DBs.’’
He has a fan in Tyler Johnson, the Gophers’ standout receiver.
“Oh, man. That dude, he can ball,’’ Johnson said. “Basically, what I’ve seen so far in the film room is he’s a guy who’s making a lot of plays.’’
Durability, Fleck said, will be important for Williamson. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do,’’ the coach said. “We’ve got to keep him healthy. He was somebody we brought in and relied on to plug a hole.’’
Smith, meanwhile, was brought in, along with transfer Royal Silver (Iowa Western Community College) to bolster the defensive line. He used his year off well.
“Sitting out was a good thing for me,’’ Smith said, a Bossier City, La., native who chose Alabama over Mississippi State. “I came in, learned the playbook, learned the players around me, learned the program and the culture, and I feel like I’m ready to go.’’
And if Smith and Williamson deliver on their promise, the Gophers defense could be all the better for the additions.
“Coming from where we came from last year, we’re light years ahead of where we were,’’ Williamson said, comparing this year’s Gophers to the 2017 version. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are bonding and doing the right thing and believing in what Coach Fleck has in store for us.’’