Carnell “Cadillac” Williams is 50 miles south of the place he once called home.
He’s 13 years removed from beginning an NFL career in Tampa Bay that was filled with highs like winning the NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award and lows like suffering a pair of devastating knee injuries. It’s been 7 years since the former Auburn star played in an NFL game. It was 5-plus years ago that Williams came to grips with reality that his playing days were behind him.
A day before the 2018 NFL Draft, the 36-year-old Williams talks about some of the top running back prospects. He loves watching guys like Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice, both of whom Williams calls “super, super talented.” Naturally, he’s a big fan of fellow former Auburn star Kerryon Johnson, who as Williams put it, has the ability to get skinny and stay patient with his runs.
Williams can talk all day about running backs and what it takes to succeed at the next level. That’s what he does for a living now. Williams is entering his second season as the running backs coach at powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he has an entire position group full of kids set on playing big-time college football.
Whether it’s breaking down film with his running backs or talking with a reporter on the phone for the better part of a half hour, the words come as natural to Williams as a jump cut in the backfield.
But when he gets reminder that it’s been nearly 13 years to the day since he was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, he’s at a rare loss for words.
“Wow …,” Williams fades off. “It’s unbelievable, man. Like I tell my guys, enjoy this time here at IMG. Enjoy high school because once you can’t play no more and you have to hang up your cleats, it’s over. It goes by so fast. I know right now the day-to-day grind is long and tough, but man, who knows?
“Thirteen years ago, I actually got drafted. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that long ago …it’s crazy.”
Williams arrived at IMG Academy, and at his new home, a year ago. He’s loving every step of his new football path.
Coaching was an obvious transition for Williams. As a player, he took pride in serving and helping out teammates. In his first two seasons out of the league, his weekends were filled with football. All day Saturday and Sunday, he’d watch games and analyze them with his buddies.
Once he realized that he playing career was over, Williams got a suggestion from his wife. Why not give coaching a shot?
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams
“She kinda put that bug in my ear,” Williams said. “She was like, ‘pretty much all you do is talk football all day.’”
That inspired Williams to get in touch with the NFLPA, which had a program that allowed former players to do a season-long coaching internship at a Division II school. In 2015, Williams took that opportunity and got his start at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. There, he got to work alongside head coach Scott Maxfield and learn about the coaching profession.
“Instantly, I was hooked,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Man, I think I found my passion. This is what I want to do.’”
There was admittedly a learning curve. The film study aspect was ramped up from his playing days. Quickly, he developed a new appreciation for the work his coaches put into understanding and communicating in the film room. Fortunately for Williams, the on-field aspect was second-nature to him. Running drills and coaching up players weren’t foreign concepts.
After learning the coaching ropes at Henderson State, Williams took an offensive graduate assistant position at Division II power West Georgia in 2016. While he was at West Georgia, he took a trip to IMG for a football camp.
Williams happened to have a friend who coached basketball, and one of her players was the daughter of IMG football coach Kevin Wright. She told Williams that she could get him a face-to-face with Wright, and at the very least, he could get a full tour of the facilities. They were vastly improved from when Williams and a few of his Tampa Bay teammates used to come down and work out at IMG during the offseason.
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams
All Williams was looking for was to maybe add a reference in Wright in hopes that one day it would pay off. Instead, they hit it off. That led to Wright offering an opportunity to Williams to join the coaching staff beginning that summer with IMG expanding to two varsity teams.
“From there,” Williams said, “I just ran with it.”
There’s definitely some irony to Williams’ situation. Thirteen years ago, he and Ronnie Brown made history as the first backfield duo to be selected in the first 5 picks of the NFL Draft. The former Auburn stars still keep in touch and reminisce about their unprecedented accomplishment.
Now, Williams is coaching a new duo of backs who are trying accomplish their own unprecedented feat. IMG seniors Trey Sanders and Noah Cain are the top two running back recruits in America, according to the 247sports composite rankings. With Williams’ help, they can become the first high school running back duo to ever claim the top two spots.
Coincidence? He thinks not.
“It’s almost like God sent me here,” Williams said.
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams
This will mark the first time in Williams’ young coaching career that he’ll be in the same place for a second season. He knows what’s expected of him, and he has a better feel for how to approach coaching high school kids, especially a couple of blue-chip recruits like Cain and Sanders.
At IMG, it’s easy to forget that it’s still high school football. As Williams or anyone who has spent time in Bradenton can attest to, the IMG facilities are better than most colleges.
While Williams is enjoying coaching at the ultimate hotbed for high school football, he’s certainly aware of the doors that a place like IMG can open. It’s been a huge stepping stone place for coaches and players alike. Position coaches often leave Bradenton for on-field roles at Power 5 schools.
Is there an ultimate destination for Williams down the road?
“In the future, maybe coaching college ball. I’m sure a lot of people know that I bleed orange and blue,” Williams said about Auburn. “I would love to give back to the school that laid my foundation for helping me become a man where I had so many great memories. The people there are unbelievable.
“But I’m happy where I’m at. I really got in this job to help kids, to serve kids, to help them get to their destination and reach their potential. To be honest with you, I would be happy doing that at a lot of places and I’m totally happy doing that here at IMG.”