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Illinois receiver Isaiah Williams turns heads on Shrine Bowl Day 3, and more from Frisco

Local product Isaiah Williams should hear his name called in the NFL Draft this April after impressing evaluators at the Shrine Bowl.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s wide receiver draft class is so stacked you might not even be thinking about someone like Illinois’ Isaiah Williams unless you’re from the area.

Though he put up a strong redshirt junior campaign in 2023 (1,055 yards, five touchdowns) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors this year, the 5-10, 180-pound junior isn’t exactly a first-round pick.

But wherever you had him ranked before the Shrine Bowl, you might want to update it.

Williams, who had a strong weekend of work in Frisco, Texas, put together some solid tape at Monday’s practice, further solidifying his place as a draftable player in this year’s class.

His smoothness in receiver drills was especially apparent as he applies the coaching he’s receiving from the East Team – led by Bears special teams coach Richard Hightower – to the field.

“Good fundamentals translate to playing good football,” he told me after practice wrapped. “[My Illinois coaches] instilled in me how much fundamentals matter. So when I go through drills, I know that’s building me up for practice. I don’t take that time for granted. I take that time to really focus on the details. So when I get in the game and I get into practice situations and details, it just takes over. It’s instinct.”

One example: East receivers have done several warmup drills this week highlighting the importance of driving back toward the football and swiftly maneuvering out of breaks at tight angles to increase separation from defensive backs.

Williams had a particularly good warmup period in one such drill and put it to work in 1-on-1s to escape from long-armed Syracuse defensive back Isaiah Johnson.

He later got himself open in team drills for a big play over the middle out of a condensed formation, taking advantage of his quickness in a slot-like role.

Players who can dominate in those alignments are a staple of Shanahan/McVay-style offenses, and Williams says he’s been working hard to learn the nuances of how to attack those spaces in the NFL.

“I think the biggest thing for me has the been the splits [for where to line up],” he said when asked about what he’s had to learn at the Shrine Bowl, noting the differences in how college fields are oriented compared to the NFL.

Given that Williams is already considering how those little details will help his game, he’s on the right track. A strong 40-time at the NFL Combine and/or his Pro Day would go a long way toward raising his stock a little higher. There’s also this: Shrine Bowl tracking data shows he’s routinely been one of the most explosive offensive players at the practices in terms of maximum acceleration.

He’s already making an impression: one evaluator I talked to had “I like him” written next to Williams’ name on the East roster, and another likened him to Darnell Mooney (in a favorable way).

Other notes from the Shrine Bowl:

  • Linebacker Darius Muasau from UCLA has had a tremendously disruptive few days at the Shrine Bowl, picking off a pass in a red zone drill and breaking up another over the middle during 7-on-7s. He’s been the best linebacker I’ve seen down there so far in all facets.
  • Qwan’tez Stiggers, the intriguing CFL Rookie of the Year who’s entering the draft after skipping college football, is on his way to making a team. He stole a deep touchdown from Mississippi State’s Lideatrick Griffin by poking the ball out of Griffin’s hands at the catch point and had a PBU on another deep ball during team drills later in practice. His coverage is sticky and competitive, and his perseverance to get to this point in his career will make teams love him.
  • North Carolina State’s Dylan McMahon is up there with Penn State’s Hunter Nourzad as one of the best centers and best interior offensive linemen in general at the Shrine Bowl. One former coach pointed out something interesting to me during team drills: McMahon is such a brick wall in pass protection that opposing pass rushers simply started avoiding him altogether, leaving him to look for work elsewhere. Another guy the Bears should have their eye on from here.
  • With time winding down in a mock two-minute drill, the West Team opted to set up a 56-yard field goal for Arkansas kicker Cam Little rather than try to get closer for an easier kick. Little responded by smashing the kick a quarter of the way up the net behind the uprights. Good. Probably would’ve been good from 65. He might be this year’s Jake Moody.
  • Tahj Washington continues to beat the “small slot guy” allegations with another grown-man contested deep catch over Dadrion Taylor-Demerson, who was all over him down the field. It’s not fair that Washington makes guys spin in circles trying to find him on short routes and routinely Mosses them over the top, too.