LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — Jarren Williams bends at the knees and leans into a comfortable place – a huddle.
He smiles and patiently stares into eyes looking to him for answers. First, the 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound quarterback listens.
One calls for blue. “Give me green,” another demands.
These aren’t football plays. These are colors of pencils and stickers. These aren’t Central Gwinnett Black Knights in this huddle. These are Jenkins Elementary Black Knights.
On Fridays, Williams is the must-see, passing and running attraction, competing as a senior quarterback in the largest high school football classification in Georgia against some of the best teams in the country. This is a Tuesday in late August, and the four-star 2018 recruit and Kentucky football commitment is in a lunchroom handing out rewards to kids, some who know who he is and call out his name and others who remain fixated in curiosity or intimidation as he moves about the room.
Everybody gets a gift and a fist-bump or high-five.
“My eyes lit up when I saw it was you,” a woman serving lunch says to Williams. “I saw you on the news last night.”
He carries a styrofoam plate with chicken nuggets, ground beef in melted cheese and corn chips to a table and sits alongside kids who stop eating and start grilling.
“How old are you?” one boy asks. “I’m 17,” Williams responds. “I’m 24,” the kid deadpans. Williams genuinely laughs out loud and exaggerates his tone during a fact-check back-and-forth.
“How much do you get paid?” another asks. “I don’t make any money yet,” Williams answers.
“Do you play Minecraft?” a girl asks.
“These kids are so hyped,” Williams says later. “… And that lemonade was really good.”
He wore a polo shirt, pants and a belt each day. His shoes were his outlet to express himself. They were colorful; every shade of the rainbow.
The best day of his life happened when he wore those shoes. He got saved when he was 7. That sounds like a young age to make such an important decision, but he says he “was able to dive right in.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I was a competitor,” he said.
When Williams was 5, he played offensive guard and blocked. At 6, he “slimmed down” and was fast enough to play tailback.
“I was going through some phases,” he says of his weight.
By 9 he was a quarterback. He celebrated with that trophy at 10, and he’s currently a future Southeastern Conference quarterback fighting for recruit-rankings respect (the eighth-best dual-threat quarterback in the country says he doesn’t care about that) and a high school state championship (that’s his stated primary focus).
There’s a good chance, sooner or later, his second-best day ever will change.
“He’s worked probably as hard or harder than anybody I’ve coached,” Central Gwinnett football coach Todd Wofford said.
Wofford has coached plenty of college-bound stars, among them Blake Sims (who led Alabama to the College Football Playoff in 2014) and T.J. Jones (who helped Notre Dame to the national championship game during the 2012 season).
Both those guys are in the NFL. And yet, comparing at this point, Wofford says Williams is better and will continue to get better because of his talent, work ethic and the offense run by Central Gwinnett.
There’s a Kentucky Wildcats connection. The Black Knights’ base offense is derived from the Tony Franklin system. Franklin was a Kentucky offensive assistant and coordinator when Wildcats Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner and Jared Lorenzen were among the most prolific quarterbacks in the country.
Wofford uses past Kentucky names to explain Williams’ versatility and abilities. He’s “heady” like Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft. He’s “hard to bring down” and has “a cannon” of an arm like Lorenzen, who holds the school record for passing yards. He’s “athletic – probably more athletic” than Andre’ Woodson, who threw an SEC-record 40 touchdown passes as a senior.
“They’re getting something that’s special,” Wofford said. “He’s a program changer and he can be the face of a program.”
Central Gwinnett also uses portions of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn rushing attack, Oregon’s vertical passing routes and Dana Holgorsen’s “Air Raid” West Virginia play-action spread.
The playbook is diverse to account for the annual changing of strengths and weaknesses that graduation creates each year. Some years there are more capable running backs and some years there are more wide receivers. Some years a run-first quarterback is the best option, and some years a drop-back, pass-always quarterback takes over.
This year Central Gwinnett has Jarren Williams.
“He makes it all easy,” Wofford said.
Three weeks into the season, Williams leads the state in passing yards (322 per game), ahead of Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 and No. 2 overall 2018 players in the country, respectively. Williams has eight passing touchdowns, two rushing scores and has thrown only two interceptions in 112 attempts.
“We put a lot on him,” Wofford said.
Central Gwinnett doesn’t use wristbands to relay plays from the sideline to the field. It’s a step Wofford skips because he wants to snap the ball and start the next play as fast as possible.
That means after each play Williams must make the next call, tell the offensive line which protection to run, know the running back’s responsibilities and the route each receiver is running. Then he must identify what the defense is doing, where the safeties line up, which linebackers might blitz.
“You have to do that in about 15 seconds,” Wofford said. “We want to snap it. Everything starts and ends with the QB.”
That’s why Wofford says Williams is more advanced than most high school quarterbacks. How many 17-year-olds call out offensive line protections on Friday nights? As he’s done previously, Williams understands the meaning and motivation of characters and grasps underlying themes.
“It’s just where I feel comfortable,” Williams said. “I’m going to be around these players and coaches every day.”
From February to June, Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Georgia and others offered. So many offensive coordinators dropped by in late April and May that Wofford didn’t have time to eat lunch. Recruiters wouldn’t leave his office and wanted to make sure Williams saw them in attendance for afternoon practices.
“There’s still a couple staying in contact, making sure we know they’re still here,” Wofford said. “Some big-time teams.”
Williams is advanced in other ways, too. Playing quarterback at the college level was more than a goal; it was a plan since Williams was a freshman playing junior varsity. He took extra classes and is set to graduate in December and enroll in college in January.
Having essentially fulfilled his high school course requirements, Williams has a college literature class and an online algebra course at nearby Gwinnett Tech.
His weekdays go like this:
The alarm goes off at 6 a.m. and he heads to a workout at the high school. Three days a week he goes to literature class. The other days he’s free to watch film, take an ice bath or visit elementary schools to hype up the kids. He arrives an hour early for football practice, which starts at 2:30 p.m. He has therapy for a lingering case of turf toe (that started when he gave chase and was juked by his Yorkshire terrier named Jason). Most nights around 7 p.m. he does a second workout with a trainer who specializes in core and hips (Williams got up to 215 pounds last season. He joked with teammates that his rib protector/flak jacket was “to hold it all in.” He’s down 20 pounds and gets the grilled chicken sandwich when he goes to Chick-fil-A). He also has a throwing-mechanics trainer who he meets and works with regularly.
His dad helped map out the training and the football work; he drives his mom’s old Subaru and has three teenage sisters. He loves them, but they’re the reason he has a “safe space” in the basement, with a pool table, video games and a bed, where he can go unnoticed for a while.
“It’s a noisy house, and I’m in the middle of it,” Williams said.
All of this connected, family, religion, academics, football, hard work, effective diet, makes Williams appear polished and plan-oriented. There’s emotion, too, and his personality is still expressed. He got his first tattoo a couple months ago, starting just below the collar of his shirt and spanning across his chest.
There’s a lot of meaning here: his mother’s birthday, a lion – “a humble beast” – and scripture with doves that symbolize peace.
There are no plans for a second tattoo. He inked what needed to be made permanent in the first one. And the work he has done, in school, on the football field and in the weight room speaks for itself, too.
“You have a kid that you can give the keys to your house and tell him to run and get something or babysit your kids,” Wofford said. “Jarren is one of those kids you can trust to do that stuff.”