TAMPA — Last season, before Jacquian Williams was a starter or a captain or a leader for USF football, the inspiration came when he was just playing special teams and had failed to make a play on kickoff coverage.
Frustrated on the sideline, he looked up at the video screens at Raymond James Stadium, and there was his daughter, Jashira, smiling.
"I saw that, went out and made the tackle," he said. "It's a silent motivation for me, to see them happy and smiling when they see me. My motivation definitely is my family, my kids."
The story of the 22-year-old senior linebacker from Riverview is a complicated one, in the long path he took to USF and the challenges he has faced in juggling classes, football and having three children ages 4 and younger. But ask USF's coaches, and he is already one of the great success stories of their careers.
"I can't express how proud I am of him," said defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who has coached him over the past 10 months, on and off the field. "I asked him to give himself to me and let me mentor him, because I think I can get him to maybe where he wants to go. I've kind of been an uncle, a dad, whatever you want to say, with advice with the struggles you have with having three kids."
To say the 6-foot-3, 216-pound Williams is turning around his life is an understatement: academically, athletically, emotionally, he is a different man today.
"I've seen a huge turnaround, from even a year ago," said his mother, Theolanda Williams, who cheers her son with his children at home games. "When he looks up during games, when he sees them, it puts a difference in his heart. They are what's giving him strength. He wants to make a better life for himself and his children."
Williams — his first name is pronounced ja-KWON — initially worried if having children would soften him as a football player. How could the same hands that gently hold his sons, Jacquian Jr. and Jakai, throw an opposing quarterback to the ground?
Still, he has flourished in his first year as a starting linebacker at USF, ranking second on the team in tackles (44) and tackles for loss (six). Williams was the Big East player of the week after getting a game-high 11 tackles in USF's win against Rutgers last week. He came through with a crucial sack on fourth down in the fourth quarter as Rutgers drove for a potential winning field goal.
USF coach Skip Holtz called him "his hero," but it wasn't because of what he has done on the field.
"He's an incredibly unselfish young man. I don't know that I've ever been around anybody as committed as he is, with the heart he has," Holtz said. "I hope my son grows up to be like Jacquian Williams. I feel that strongly about him as a young man."
That commitment extends to the classroom, where Snyder bluntly admits "his grades were in the toilet, and he's all A's and B's right now." And it extends to fatherhood, where Williams has obligations to child support for all three children and is committed to being a part of their lives.
"It's something that grown men handle," he said. "For me, that's the next step in being a man."
Williams, who grew up in Tampa, signed with Akron out of high school, but when he didn't qualify academically USF assistant Rich Rachel placed him at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, where he had once coached. It wasn't intended, but the move took him away from the distractions he had in Tampa and helped him mature.
"I was always like a partying type guy. Going out there, I realized it was just me out there. It made me grow up faster," Williams said. "Me maturing on my own, not having my mom or anyone behind me, I remember waking up one day and seeing the light. It changed my whole way of what I was doing. I knew what I had to do."
Now, in his second season at USF, he's one of three captains, and the leadership role is one he's fully embracing. Williams was a captain at Fort Scott but said he wasn't prepared mentally to be a leader at that point.
"That was a role they threw on me, and I wasn't ready for it," he said. "I didn't know how to lead. Even now, at the beginning, I didn't know how. I put the work in, I did everything I could and earned their respect."
Williams went to Holtz privately two weeks ago with an unusual scheduling conflict for a college football player: wanting to be able to go trick-or-treating with kids, though the Bulls had a practice until early evening on Halloween.
"It means the world to him," Holtz said. "He took them trick-or-treating, but we tried to help the balance. I don't think I've ever seen him without a smile."
Parenthood, like leadership on a football field, is something Williams wants to embrace, and success this season — whether it leads to a future in the NFL or just a degree in interdisciplinary social sciences, due in August — is something that will allow him to be a better father the rest of his life.
"He understands there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Holtz said. "The values he's learning with the hard work and the focus are the things that will make him successful when football's all done, whether that's five years from now or one year. I think he has a very bright future."
Snyder said last month, he and his wife had their cars broken into and their wallets stolen, and with the hassle of canceling credit cards and getting a new license, he said the one person who noticed him frazzled in the office was Williams.
"We're in a meeting, and he goes, 'Something's not right with you,' " he said. "I told them, and then two days in a row, I get a text from him: 'Coach, are you okay?' He's looking out for me? What a beautiful story. There's a trust factor there. Jacquian is going to leave a nice little 'Here's how to get it done' kind of thing as he walks out of this place, for our future."