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Everyone wants Ryan Williams but who does he want? (Hint, it starts with an A)

Auburn coach Hugh Freeze watches Saraland’s Ryan Williams score on a long pass in the Class 6A state championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Freeze is pushing hard for Williams to flip his commitment from Alabama. (Helen Joyce/Call News)

 

“We want Ryan!”

“We want Ryan!”

“We want Ryan!”

The chant was heard arising from students in the sellout crowd of 9,000 fans at Auburn’s Neville Arena on Dec. 17 but nobody named Ryan was on the Tigers’ basketball roster or even Southern Cal’s. And unless someone named Ryan was passing out free beer from the concession stand, there had to be another reason for the rhapsodic pleading.

The reason had walked into the arena wearing a red pullover, a black stocking cap with “Supreme” stitched on it and his trademark incandescent smile, as wide as his catch radius and no doubt the envy of dentists and movie stars throughout the land.

Ryan “Hollywood” Williams — one of the greatest football players to come from a state known for them — sat among the students with some other highly decorated recruits and the chant began welling up from courtside.

“We want Ryan!”

“We want Ryan!”

“We want Ryan!”

Auburn wants Ryan to help it become relevant in the SEC again. Alabama wants Ryan to help keep Nick Saban’s dynasty alive. Who doesn’t want Ryan?

The students weren’t yelling “We want Cam!” or “We want Perry!” That would be fellow five-star wide receivers Cam Coleman and Perry Thompson, both of whom accompanied Williams to the game and had already flipped their commitments to Auburn.

The students want something they probably can’t have — which presumably makes it more exciting — and that is for Williams to change his commitment from the Crimson Tide and join the Tigers, as Thompson did.

Does Thompson’s flip offer any hope to Auburn coach Hugh Freeze to get Williams? To get even, in a way, for what happened at the Iron Bowl — the 4th-and-31, the Gravedigger, the Dare in Jordan-Hare, the one-in-a-Milroe?

If the Tigers had Ryan that day — and no doubt he could have made an immediate impact — the outcome might have been different. Perhaps that is why Williams, who held a “Freeze Warning” sign at the basketball game, enjoyed the rare tribute from the Auburn fans — and call it what it was, a cry for his help. As memorable a moment as it was, as appreciated as it was, it won’t have a lasting impact, at least not on the nearly 17-year-old star it was meant to impress.

“It made it feel like they really wanted me,” Williams said. “It was like I was at the right place. I told my dad it was one of the craziest things I ever experienced.”

But will it sway him to change his mind?

“I don’t think it’s a factor, although it was definitely nice to hear,” Williams said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

 

No looking back

 

And this once-in-a-lifetime player, who recently reclassified to join the 2024 class and sign a year early, is ready for the next steps of his career and knows there are more important things to consider than a crowd reaction. His education aside, who has the best quarterback? Who can best help him reach the NFL and his full potential? Where can he win championships? Where does he feel settled and at home in his gut?

Williams committed to Alabama in 2022 and has consistently said he intends to keep his pledge. He plans to sign with the Tide on Feb. 9, his 17th birthday, graduate in May and report to Tuscaloosa in the summer.

“I always try to take a lot of time to think about it and the way my family and I feel, we go with it and don’t look back on it, just stick with the decision,” Williams said.

Give Freeze praise for trying to rebuild the Tigers the old-fashioned way, the proven way, with high school recruits such as Williams and not quick fixes from the transfer portal. And Williams feels being part of a quintet with Coleman, Thompson, Malcolm Simmons and Bryce Cain on the Plains would shave away double coverage and give them an honored place in the resurrection of Auburn football.

“In high school, the best player gets bracketed,” Williams said. “There’s only one ball but in that situation (at Auburn), it would be easier to get one-on-one and easier to score with less catches.”

Still, Williams is not a gambler and despite Freeze’s recruiting success in the current cycle — Auburn has the No. 7 class nationally, according to On3’s rankings — it’s going to take much more to dig out of the crater the Tigers tumbled into because of the recruiting clinkers of Gus Malzahn and especially Bryan Harsin.

 

The Saban factor

 

Saban is much more of a sure thing. He has developed an NCAA-record 44 first-round NFL draft picks at Alabama; Auburn has six in the same span.

Williams has done his research: “Alabama’s got the most first rounders since he’s been there and more wide receivers go in the first round,” he said.

Those would be Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley, Jameson Williams, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, an exclusive club Hollywood has the talent to join.

They all have another thing in common: quarterbacks who made them better. And Williams would have one such quarterback, at least as a freshman, in Jalen Oluwaseun Isaiah Milroe. Oluwaseun means “thank you God,” words he will no doubt utter if he gets to throw passes to Williams, especially the deep ball, which they both love.

Maybe they’ll even have a chance to do something with history weighing heavily on the ball, as it did in the final seconds of the Iron Bowl, when Milroe pulled up a chair waiting for Isaiah Bond to get open, then threw the Gravedigger pass to win the game, a play Williams personally saw unfold in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Milroe’s presence assures Williams of the quarterback skill and stability he values, the same as he’s had the last two years with K.J. Lacey at Saraland.

“Definitely,” Williams said. “Somebody’s got to get me the ball. I’m depending on somebody to do that.”

 

A telling Freeze frame

 

One could imagine Hollywood climbing his own tree to catch Milroe’s pass in the corner of the end zone to win the Iron Bowl. Hollywood himself could see it and also saw a telling Freeze frame afterward: Distraught Tigers fans consoled themselves with playing the Tide close and therein lies something which must be fixed. For almost its entire existence, beating Alabama has been the most important thing to Auburn; for the Tide, it’s winning national championships.

The Tigers haven’t been elite since the Pat Dye era. Elite teams win the national championship when they go undefeated and win a major bowl; Auburn did both in 2004 and finished second.

The Tigers can’t merely have success only when Alabama struggles. They must get on the same level, something Freeze realizes.

Doubt it? Since Paul “Bear” Bryant died, the Tide barely leads the series with Auburn 22-19 but has won seven national championships to the Tigers’ one during that same period. Tommy Tuberville won six straight Iron Bowls, better than Dye or Shug Jordan, but succeeded at least partly because Alabama was going through the tumult of Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula. Once Saban showed up, the dominance of the Bryant years began afresh.

Freeze may change that someday but possibly only over Saban’s dead or retired body. People have been saying for years Saban is ready to float his boat full time at his Georgia lake house, or at his Jupiter Island mansion, or pass the hours driving his Ferrari — but all that keeps happening is other SEC schools firing their coaches because they can’t win like he does.

Williams said last summer he and Saban discussed those rumors.

“He said he’s gonna be coaching until he croaks over and he’s got some time,” Williams said on a podcast.

Williams said he’s not sure he’ll have the time to make official visits to LSU, Georgia and Texas before February’s National Signing Day, as he originally planned.

They want Ryan too. But who does Ryan want?

“I’m going to enjoy the process but I’m definitely locked in,” he said.

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