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Into the light: Freshman walk-on Shadow Williams emerges at LB for Arizona

Shadow Williams

Shadow Williams has impressed coaches with his hustle and hitting. Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

First thing you need to know about Shadow Williams: That’s not a nickname. Shadow is his real name.

“I get asked a lot if I’m joking or not,” he said with a laugh. “It’s my actual name. I pull out my ID a lot to prove people wrong.”

Proving people wrong isn’t just something he just with a driver’s license.

With less than two weeks before the Sept. 1 season opener against Toledo, Shadow Williams — freshman walk-on — just might be the Arizona Wildcats’ starting middle linebacker.

“The way it is going now,” he said Sunday at Arizona’s Media Day, “I should be getting a lot of playing time in the opening game. Pretty excited for that. Just coming in as a walk-on, knowing I could contribute to the defense in the first game, it’s definitely mind-blowing.”

Williams’ emergence in fall camp was part ability, part emergency.

Projected starting linebacker Brian Wagner, a senior transfer from Akron, left the team in the summer. His presumptive replacement, sophomore Rob Hankins, has missed most of fall drills because of a concussion. Other linebackers, such as freshman Dakota Conwell, have been banged up.

Who’s next? Why not Williams?

“You know what, he’s a physical kid. He likes to play football. He has an energy about him,” said defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel. “I liked the kid as soon as I met him.”

That the Arizona coaches met him at all is a bit of connect-the-dots good fortune.

Williams is from Land O’ Lakes High School in Tampa, where, he said, one of his coaches was Frank Davis, a former South Florida offensive lineman who is in his first year as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Arizona. Davis is a family friend. They talked.

And Williams did know the territory a bit, having spent some middle-school years living in the Phoenix area as a, gasp, ASU fan.

“I did some more research and I thought this would possibly be the spot for me on the field,” he said.

Looks like a good call.

He said his scholarship options were North Carolina Central and Bethune Cookman.

Size was a factor. He’s listed at 6-foot and 226 pounds, which makes him a lightweight at middle linebacker at most major colleges. Size isn’t such a big deal in Casteel’s system. His 3-3-5 employs multiple hybrid athletes who sometimes get overlooked elsewhere.

“Those kids tend to get a little bigger, a little stronger, a little faster,” Casteel said.

“In the past, we’ve recruited kids who may be undersized, and the next thing you know, our strength staff has done a great job with them. They come in as a 205-pound kid, and they end up going to the Combine at 245.”

Arizona doesn’t have that luxury of time with Williams right now.

He’s not going to get bigger, stronger before the season-opener. He’s going to have to be ready, just as is.

He has two things going for him right now:

–A big chip on his shoulder. “I’m not like sour, but I feel I could have earned a D-I scholarship,” he said. “I keep that in my when I go out and play.”

–He can hit. “We had a thing this year where we had the top five plays from camp,” he said. “I was the only freshman who made it to the countdown at No. 2. At the scrimmage at Fort Huachuca, I blew up the running back at the 1-yard line, and the coached really noticed that.”

He”s getting noticed for more than just his name. It’s a little more distinctive than being, say, Cliff Williams Jr.

His dad — “a military man,” Shadow said — gave him more than that interesting name. This advice has served Shadow well as he begins his UA journey:

“He always taught me to stay competitive through life,” Shadow said. “You always have to go get what you want, but stay humble at the same time.”

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