Leonard Williams poised for big season

LOS ANGELES -- Leonard Williams didn’t seem to have a moment to himself at Paramount Studios on Wednesday, when the first of two Pac-12 Football media mays was held. Surrounded by reporters and cameras from the moment he arrived, the USC defensive lineman looked remarkably at ease in the situation for a player entering his junior campaign.

Then again, if there is one thing that Williams has had the opportunity to grow accustomed to, it’s attention. A 2013 ESPN.com first-team All-American, he was recently named to preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurski, Outland and Lott Impact awards.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, he has also been pegged by numerous media outlets as a potential Top 5 pick in the 2015 NFL draft -- if he chooses to make himself available. ESPN’s Todd McShay, in fact, currently projects him as the No. 1 overall selection.

To Williams’ credit, he hasn’t allowed any of the hoopla to get to his head. Blocking out any thoughts of the NFL for the moment, the only thing on his mind these days is fall camp -- which starts up Aug. 4 for the Trojans -- and the season ahead.

“I see the hype a lot, but I really don’t pay attention to it,” Williams said. “At the end of the day I’ll just keep that in the backburner and just let that play out on its own. I’m more focused on where I’m at in this moment, which is getting ready for camp and the season.”

There is, however, ample justification for the praise the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Williams has received. Despite playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder throughout his entire sophomore season in 2013, he managed 74 stops with a team-high 13.5 tackles-for-loss, emerging as the star of a USC defense that ranked No. 13 (335.2 yards allowed per game) in the FBS.

Recovering from surgery on his shoulder last December, Williams sat out the spring, but he has been participating in team workouts this summer, and there is reason to believe that he will be back better than ever when the Trojans hit Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field in less than two weeks.

“I feel a lot better than I was last season,” Williams said. “My shoulder feels great right now, and I should be back to about 100 percent when camp starts.”

That is good news for first-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who has been encouraged by what he has seen so far from Williams.

“I'm blown away. He looks in great shape,” Sarkisian said of Williams, who will anchor a talented Trojans defensive line that will be relied upon to set the tone up front in Justin Wilcox’s new 3-4 multiple look scheme. “I know the offense isn't particularly fired up about going against him every day in practice, but he's going to make them better."

Listed atop the Trojans’ depth chart at the interior defensive end spot, Sarkisian is so confident in Williams’ skill set and physical tools that he plans to line him up all over the line to maximize his playmaking ability.

“Leonard's got a very high football IQ, so we'll rely on Leonard to play multiple positions,” Sarkisian said. “We'll try to move him around as best we can and put him in position to be successful.”

For Williams, focused and healthy, finding success isn’t something he is likely to struggle with in 2014.