Santae McWilliams gives Saraland’s offense devastating balance on the ground. (Call News file photo)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
SARALAND — With all due respect to Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, all they had to do was figure out how to split the atom. They never had the daunting task of devising a scheme to blow up Saraland’s offense.
Could they have done it? They were part of the Manhattan Project but how about the Man, Can’t Handle It Project? What’s the equation for that, anyway?
Football + Spartans x 11 = 🧨
What are the odds for opposing defenses to defeat that degree of difficulty? The same as pulling teeth out of an alligator while he’s making a meal of your spleen? Joe Biden saying something that makes sense? Paying $1 for a gallon of gas?
Or take longtime Mobile-area assistant coach Danny Smith’s suggestion.
“If you’re playing Saraland, you better say your prayers the night before,” said Smith, who has coached for 34 years at five schools, mainly on the defensive side. “Saraland has the most talent I’ve seen in the Mobile area in years.”
Divine intercession aside, it goes beyond Mobile, of course. Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa coach Jamie Mitchell issued an ominous dispatch to the rest of the state last year that coaches must work 365 days and nights to find solutions for the Spartans and even that might not be enough.
“You don’t often see players like that affect a whole year of defensive planning but to win the 6A state championship the next two years, you’re going to have to play elite defense,” the elite coach said last December, a few weeks after losing to Saraland 56-31 in a playoff game in which quarterback K.J. Lacey and wide receiver Ryan Williams unscrewed the top of the Patriots’ highly regarded defense and whizzed it over the state line. It was only the fourth time in 42 years Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa had ingested half a hundred.
“It’s not a good feeling when they’re in the same class and we may see them twice more,” Mitchell said.
And having double, triple and quadruple visions when you do see them because Spartans coach Jeff Kelly loves mixing new potions in his laboratory.
“That’s probably my favorite part of coaching,” he said. “I can’t tell you what we’ll be doing in week five. There are people who have said they study us all year, that they have to, but one thing I like to do is blow it up every year and start from scratch.”
Such detonations, regardless of how they look, begin with Lacey and Williams, whose connection may be the best and most sublime of any high school football played from sea to shining sea.
Lacey (6-1, 180) is peerless with his cerebral reads, catapulting release and accuracy from many angles. He throws with his right arm but it seems like he has six of them coming out of his shoulder, each one a viper ready to strike.
Williams (6-1, 170) takes in those offerings and his artistry emerges. He begins sculpting, making defensive backs look like stone statues, then throws down — as in first downs or touchdowns, the two things that usually happen when he tucks the ball under his arm.
An average quarterback could not bring out the best in this offense and Mitchell maintains Lacey is the keystone to what could become one of the greatest high school offenses in state history.
“Williams is a great player but that dang quarterback is absolutely lethal,” Mitchell said. “I’ve said it before but he makes it happen for them. He’s an elite, elite guy. He gets it to Williams and he doesn’t usually miss him. And Williams doesn’t need much, just a little grass.”
Lacey and Williams are the spearheads of a college offense on a high school field. Saraland has a four-star Texas quarterback commitment (Lacey) throwing to a five-star Alabama commitment on one side (Williams) and a four-star SEC prospect on the other (Dillon Alfred) and handing off to a three-star Michigan/Florida State/Mississippi State running back (Santae McWilliams). All the skill people either have offers or are prospects, as are the three returning offensive line starters.
Kelly sleeps better than defensive coordinators.
“People can dream up schematically all kinds of stuff but there are only so many things you can do,” he said. “What we’ve got to be great at is having answers.”
Defenses have more questions than answers. How do you stop the Spartans? Disrupt Lacey? Jam or triple team Williams? Control the ball to keep it away from them? Even in its lone defeat last year, Saraland had the ball for only 14 of the game’s 48 minutes and lost by a point to Theodore. Or is it more realistic to force the Spartans into mistakes or hope they get sloppy?
Last season, they had just 10 turnovers, only four in the playoffs. Stupid penalties? Forget it.
“We work hard to limit mistakes and making a lot of mistakes would be the only way we lose,” said Williams, the first sophomore to win Mr. Football and who could be the first player to win it twice. “We’ve got too many weapons offensively and defensively. It’s unmatched.”
Smith said opponents must use well-disguised zone coverages, make Saraland impatient and drive the length of the field, increasing the odds of errors while draining the clock.
“You hope you make them go on an eight-, 10- or 14-play drive and cross your fingers they turn it over or get a false start to put them behind the chains,” he said. “Back in the day, if you gave up a five- or seven-yard gain, that was a negative play. If you hold Saraland to something like that, it’s a heckuva job. I think the only thing that can stop them is them.”
‘Something you hadn’t
seen in high school’
Kelly gave Lacey the ultimate compliment for a quarterback: “He’s got tremendous players around him and they feed off each other but K.J. makes everybody around him better.”
There is also a proven saying that it’s hard to complete passes when you’re lying on the ground. But Lacey was sacked only seven times last year.
Defenses will be defenseless if they can’t get pressure on Lacey. Even when he is squeezed, he remains placid and seldom off target.
“He’s going to make a lot of defensive coaches upset,” Spartans defensive coordinator Brett West said. “There are times we have the perfect coverage called (in practice) and our guys are all over them and K.J. will put the ball only where the receiver can catch it. The chemistry he has created with all those receivers is incredible to watch.”
Sometimes, it’s enough to make West want to lose his lunch until he remembers Lacey is on his side.
“It’s hard to rattle him,” West said. “One time, we got pressure on him with a blitz and, I swear, Ryan had not even come out of his break and K.J. was falling backward and made one of his sidearm throws. From his pre-snap read to then, he knew Ryan would be open. It was a deep comeback down the sideline and K.J. sniffed out the pressure and threw an absolute dime just as Ryan was coming out of his break on the sideline. It was impossible to defend. You look at the other defensive coaches and we can’t even get mad at our guys. Once a day, we watch practice film and you see something you hadn’t seen in high school.”
Obstacles for Lacey serve only to polish and elevate his game.
“It’s about accountability and keeping my composure, even in practice,” he said.
Alfred — a four-star receiver who transferred from Gautier, Miss., and has offers from Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas A&M, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Penn State, among others — couldn’t wait to get on the field with Lacey.
“I watched film on him and saw him throwing the ball to Ryan and knew he was the dawg already,” Alfred said. “When he throws it, it’s just different. It’s like it’s effortless. He’s real confident behind center.”
Lacey said he is a more erudite quarterback than last year, when he passed for 3,177 yards, 40 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
“I’m making better decisions on the field and when it gets to the game, everything has slowed down,” he said. “I’ve learned the playbook more. I’m more comfortable. I was still learning it last year. I know how the O-line is going to block, how the running backs are going to block.”
No part of the field is off limits for Lacey’s arm, which is already NFL caliber, QB Country founder David Morris said.
“K.J. can make all the throws — the deep ball, intermediate, the quick game,” Kelly said. “He’s one of the best in the country. He’s the field general. There is a mutual respect for what he’s done, for the leadership and understanding he plays with.”
The best gets better
Williams is the state’s most spectacular player and is ranked the top receiver nationally in the 2025 class, so Saraland’s offense will get routed through him — whether he uses his 4.38 40-yard speed and bone-dissolving moves to get open or draws enough defensive attention to free the other receivers or creates space for McWilliams to run the ball.
Williams finished the 2022 season with 2,387 yards of total offense and 40 touchdowns, 18 in the playoffs alone, scored an average of every three times he touched the ball and averaged 16 yards per play.
He led the state with 87 catches for 1,641 yards and 24 TDs, ran for 700 yards and 15 TDs, returned two punts for scores and threw a touchdown pass. Williams was held without a touchdown only once, against Blount.
Known as much for his tireless work ethic as his abundant physical gifts, the player known as “Hollywood” has relished getting better and has fully recovered from a tweaked hamstring in the spring.
“I know when I see somebody working hard, it drives me to be better,” he said. “I want to be the one where you look over and say that. It’s a domino effect. The challenge is just knowing I have to become a better receiver. At the next level, everyone can run a 4.2, a 4.4, and I’ve got to be able to do more than run past people. I’ve got to make the catch in traffic.”
But first, opponents can’t let him beat them deep, a feat easier to theorize than accomplish.
“He’s a hard, hard cat to even double,” Mitchell said. “You put somebody down there tight on him and if he misses, now you’re in single coverage against him. My guess is people will back off a little and keep the ball from being thrown over the top of your head. But if you do that, they’ll get it to him underneath and you become vulnerable to the screen game. There just isn’t a good answer.”
Williams and Lacey said the deep ball is still going to be a major part of the arsenal.
“I’m not going to make it easy for them,” Williams said. “I’m definitely still going to take those shots and try to make those plays. If it’s underneath, just get it to me right now, as soon as possible.”
Lacey will be happy to oblige.
“I’m sure they’ll try to take away the deep ball but a lot of times last year we had explosive plays on screens and slants,” he said. “If they take away the deep ball, we’ll find a way around it. They may try to take it away but we’ll still check it.”
While sound techniques help in blunting Williams’ release off the line of scrimmage — and opponents will have no choice but to press him — only a superb athlete can truly challenge Williams, as Theodore’s Will James did last year in a 27-26 victory over the Spartans, in their only defeat. Williams was held to five catches for 44 yards by perhaps a future NFL cornerback with a large wingspan.
“All good DBs are patient and Will did a good job being patient,” Williams said. “And he knows how to be physical early.”
James, who signed with Mississippi State, was so exhausted covering Williams man-to-man he was carried out of the locker room with cramps after the game.
“It drained me,” James said. “That’s probably the tiredest I have ever been in my life. You have to be physical with him. When you’ve got somebody that fast, you’ve got to put your hands on them. He has such a quick step off the line. It’s A1. It’s lightning. You’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s against that.”
Few high school cornerbacks in Alabama are as good as James and only a handful could possibly face Williams this year. But Williams will surely be tested by Lipscomb’s Kaleb Beasley, a four-star cornerback who has committed to Tennessee, in the nationally televised season opener.
“Having good players helps,” Theodore defensive coordinator Randy Larson said. “Will matched up with Ryan. They were determined to move him around so we couldn’t be physical with him and we were able to press him and jam him with some success.”
But it may be even more difficult to jar a stronger, heavier Williams off his initial release this year.
“I think he’s most proud of what he’s done in the weight room,” said his father, Ryan Williams Sr. “He knows he’s got to be ready for a more physical style. He’ll bump into me on purpose in the house and I’ll see if I can knock him a little off balance — it’s like a little weight check. He’s ready to lean on some folks. He took some punishment last year and he’s got to be able to give some back. I’m ready to see him block.”
Plenty of targets
Saraland is so deep with quality receivers — “We’ve got seven guys you can run out there and feel pretty good about,” Kelly said — it’s possible Williams might not even lead his own team in catches because he must share the ball with a half-dozen others and will draw coverage away from them.
“I know I’m going to have more of a target on my back,” Williams said. “But it could be easier too because of all the weapons we have, freeing up open ground and giving us more opportunities to catch the ball.”
Lacey will distribute passes so well that Williams concedes the ball will be a precious commodity.
If, for example, Williams, Alfred, C.D. Gill and Myron Dunklin are on the field at the same time, who gets double teamed? Who doesn’t? Jordan Dees, Brooks Womble and Mike Smith will also share in the love from Lacey’s arm. How many defensive backs do you use at one time? A nickel isn’t enough. A dime? A dollar? Do you rent extra DBs the week of the Saraland game? If an opponent is reduced to a skeleton crew of linemen and linebackers, McWilliams will gorge himself on the remnants scattered about the ground.
“We’re all going to have limited opportunities but there will be a lot of one-on-one opportunities,” Williams said. “I believe all of us will score more on less touches. I think we have a good understanding that we will all have limited opportunities. You might get the ball only four or five times but if you get 100-plus yards, that’s good.”
The detail-oriented Alfred and Dunklin, who transferred from Blount in the offseason, give the Spartans two more legitimate big-play threats at wideout to go with Williams and Gill.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” Alfred said. “God had me come over here for a reason. I love the way they run things.”
The diminutive Gill, an elusive route-master who would likely be the star receiver at most any other school, might benefit the most from the attention Williams and Alfred will attract.
“I feel like I’ll get overlooked,” Gill said. “They won’t game plan to stop me and that will give me a better chance to make a bigger impact.”
Gill estimated he, Williams and Alfred will be on the field together at least 50 snaps a game.
“We run a lot of four- and five-receiver sets,” Gill said. “Ryan is really fast and the big deep threat but he can catch the short ball and burst past the defense. I’m more man-to-man and get the first down. I take a lot of pride in running routes. I usually have a linebacker matched up with me and I want the yards after the catch.”
Lacey is excited about the options he has.
“It’s going to be fun for me,” Lacey said. “I have more people I can rely on. They know how to get open and they have confidence in me to get the ball to them. Or if a play breaks down, I roll out. We just want to be one big brain on the field.”
Kelly, the main brain, said Dunklin and Alfred are ready to contribute even as they are still learning the system.
“There is no doubt they have tremendous athletic ability that is going to show up every Friday night,” Kelly said. “I expect them to make a lot of noise.”
Kelly doesn’t expect such noise to include complaints about how many passes each receiver collects. If they do their jobs, the numbers won’t matter.
“It’s not about touches,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to have a great understanding of getting everybody in sync. Top to bottom, it’s as talented as anybody in the state but we’ve got to have 100 percent understanding of the calls, then go execute and play fast.”
Kelly emphasized he wants intelligent players in his system.
“We want to grow smart football players who can think on the run, be flexible and adapt,” Kelly said. “K.J. has a much better understanding than a year ago. He’s really reading defenses and delivering the football at a very high level.”
It’s Kelly’s job to synchronize all that receiving talent, to help them uncover the single coverages, to block downfield, to sacrifice themselves to get a teammate open.
“We’ve got to continue to work through the right combinations,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t care less about how many stars they have in a recruiting evaluation. It’s who is going to help us win the battles. Who is reliable?”
The reliable counterpunch
Nobody is more reliable than McWilliams (5-9, 170), who gives the offense its valuable balance on the ground.
Last year, McWilliams ran for 1,484 yards and 16 TDs and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Just as importantly, he lost only one fumble on 253 carries and that came in the first round of the playoffs. Over the last four playoff games, a ball never touched the ground.
An overlooked fact from last year is that Saraland ran the ball (379 times) more than it passed (318) while averaging 372 yards of total offense.
Defenses must put up as much barbed wire as possible against the Spartans’ passing game and when the safeties are removed from run support, McWilliams will wield some sharp wire cutters.
“There will be times we have to run the football,” Kelly said. “We want to be balanced. If you’re a defensive coordinator playing us, you’ve got decisions to make. You’re looking at a very talented receiving corps. Ryan is the best wide receiver in the country. Then you put Alfred out there, so how do you cover? Do you keep your safeties back and keep everything in front of you? No one would benefit more from that than Santae.
“Santae is poised to have a humongous year. Our offensive line is working hard to open holes for him and he’s such a complete running back. He runs physical, runs with speed, he can protect, he’s smart, he can get involved in the passing game.”
The reserved McWilliams wants his performance to speak for itself.
“I know I have to pick up the team and do my job,” he said. “I think (the running game) can be better than last year. The offensive line has gotten better and they’ve got more confidence. I’ve gotten bigger, stronger and faster. Mentally, I’ve learned my job better.
“We’re always hungry and we’re going to get better every day. We always want to be the best team and beat everybody and we take pride in doing things the right way.”
Williams is also an unnerving running threat. Kelly began moving him around the formations in the playoffs to unsettle defenses and get the ball in his hands more in the running game and in the postseason, Williams had more runs (42 for 492 yards and 10 TDs) than receptions (34 for 689 yards and 7 TDs).
“I think by far that was one of the best things they did because you set things in the secondary and you’ve absolutely got to have help with him and then when he goes to the backfield, you can throw all that out the window,” Mitchell said. “Then it changes your box. That’s asking a lot of 15- and 16-year-old kids to do.”
Getting in their heads