SARALAND, Ala. — There was never a doubt in Ryan Williams’ mind. The five-star wide receiver knew Alabama was the place even in the wake of Nick Saban’s retirement. He just needed a little time to meet the legendary coach’s replacement.
“I mean, it’s Alabama,” Williams said. “I knew we were going to get somebody, so I was still confident.”
Williams made his pledge to the Crimson Tide official Wednesday morning at Saraland High School alongside eight other teammates on national signing day. Williams, the No. 8 overall player in the 2024 class according to the 247Sports Composite, is set to graduate a year early and join the program this summer. In front of a packed auditorium, Williams and his family gave a “Roll Tide!” and a “Blitz, Bama, Blitz!” from the stage. After the ceremony, Williams opened up on a long recruiting process that’s finally over.
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Williams said. “Just with everybody pulling at me, everybody wanting a piece of me, it was definitely a tough decision, but it came to be easy once I talked to Coach DeBoer and the new staff. It just made me feel comfortable.”
How does it feel now that Williams is officially Tuscaloosa-bound?
“Great, amazing, outstanding, fantastic, beautiful,” Williams said. “It feels great.”
Officially official — Here’s Ryan Williams’ signing day speech + signature pose as the five-star WR made it official with #Alabama this morning.
— Kennington Lloyd Smith III (@SkinnyKenny_) February 7, 2024
Williams will leave Saraland High as one of the most decorated and prolific players in Alabama high school history. He’s the first back-to-back Mr. Football and Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama history, with a total stat line that includes more than 5,000 all-purpose yards and 72 total touchdowns. In his final high school game, the Class 6A state championship at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Williams caught 11 passes for 232 yards, returned a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown and added a rushing touchdown.
He had been committed to Alabama since Oct. 8, 2022, but on Jan. 10, the day of Saban’s retirement, Williams decommitted and patiently waited for the new hire. Two days later, Kalen DeBoer was hired as Alabama’s coach.
“I got a phone call the night (DeBoer) was hired,” Kelly said. “Within a day or so we had a conversation, and they really made it a very important part of his early days to reach out to Ryan and me and just introduce himself and who he is, who he wants to be as a coach and the plans they have for Ryan.”
Williams took an official visit to Alabama the weekend of Jan. 20 and recommitted to Alabama four days later in a massive recruiting win for DeBoer, who fended off interest from Auburn, Texas and LSU, among others. Williams pointed to DeBoer’s demeanor as a key factor in reaffirming his commitment.
“Anyone else that came into that position probably would try to live up to the Saban hype or try to act like Coach Saban,” Williams said. “(DeBoer) is himself. He’s very comfortable in himself, he made me very comfortable and I believe in his offense.”
A storied high school career
Williams entered the Saraland program in 2021 as a skinny, dynamic quarterback, but Saraland needed help at wide receiver. Kelly happened to catch a glimpse of Williams, who was the varsity’s backup QB at the time, and teammate (now West Virginia wide receiver) Jarel Williams throwing routes to one another.
“I called over a couple of coaches and said, ‘Look out the window,’” Kelly said. “We’d been looking and needing a receiver to step up, we were just looking in the wrong place. We threw him out there as a ninth grader and he handled it, had some success, but that offseason from his freshman to sophomore year, you could see him grow in confidence and who he was as a player.
“I told people before his sophomore year that he was going to be the best player in the state. Nobody believed me, but I was right.”
A new quarterback joined Saraland for the 2022 season: KJ Lacey, a Class of 2025 prospect and current Texas commit. The duo helped lead Saraland to its first ever state championship in ’22 and a runner-up finish in ’23. Two years removed from a life-changing position switch, Williams is emerging as a star.
He boasts the nickname “Hollywood,” given to him by his family after a six-touchdown performance in rec league football as a six-year old. His recent official visit to Alabama featured a photoshoot with a “Walk of Fame” of past Alabama greats and a personal star for him that read “Next Up” as well as a sign that spelled out “Hollywood.”
His platform is continuously growing, with over 269,000 combined followers on social media (X, Instagram, TikTok). That level of attention from fans, coaches and media can be taxing on a young athlete, but those around Williams compliment his maturity. Williams has embraced the notoriety he’s earned.
“It’s definitely been an honor,” Williams said. “I mean, it’s a lot of people that you can say that look up to me, so I just want to make sure they have something good to look up to. And I plan on using my platform in the most positive way I can.”
‘It’s time to work’
On the final play of the 2023 state championship game, a 31-28 loss to Clay-Chalkville, Williams lined up against a familiar face: five-star defensive back Jaylen Mbakwe, Williams’ best friend and the longest-tenured Alabama commit of the 2024 class. Mbkawe played a key role in Williams sticking with Alabama. Now their battles will continue on Alabama’s practice fields. Who will get the better of whom?
“Definitely me,” Williams said, with a smile. “But iron sharpens iron, so he’s going to get better.”
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) February 7, 2024
Williams credited Mbakwe as the 2024 class’ No. 1 recruiter, and Williams will now assume that role for the Class of 2025, a group that was once ranked No. 1 nationally but has been reduced to just two commitments since Nick Saban’s retirement and Williams’ reclassification. Who’s his No. 1 target? Lacey, who was on hand sporting a Texas bookbag at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I gotta get everybody that I can,” Williams said. “I had the No. 1 2025 class in the country, we gotta get back to that.”
For Williams, the next few months will be much calmer now that his recruiting process has ended. He described the coming months as “just working,” as he looks to add to his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame and hone his skills at receiver and returner. The expectation is that he will compete for roles both on offense and special teams.
“Definitely ready to enjoy (the next few months),” Williams said. “But I also know the task at hand, I know it’s time to work and get ready for next season.”
Williams will have an opportunity to contribute immediately. Alabama lost its top three receivers in terms of games started from 2023 (Malik Benson, Isaiah Bond, Jermaine Burton) and another three players at the position via the transfer portal (Ja’Corey Brooks, Thaiu Jones-Bell, Shazz Preston). Williams is one of five new wide receivers on the 2024 roster, joining four-stars signees Aeryn Hampton, Amari Jefferson and Rico Scott and Washington transfer Germie Bernard.
The idea of playing under DeBoer and new position coach JaMarcus Shephard, who tutored soon-to-be NFL Draft picks Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan at Washington, is another reason why Williams recommitted a few weeks ago.
“(Shephard) has been very, very productive,” Williams said “I mean, two receivers with over 1,000 yards (in 2023), and he’s had that the past two or three seasons. I’m as confident as I can be in this offense.”
Sixteen years ago to the day, another in-state, megastar receiver committed to Alabama to jump-start the Saban era and add instant credibility to a new staff on the recruiting trail: Foley native Julio Jones. Williams will need to prove he’s worth the hype on the field at Alabama, but this is a seismic moment for a new era of Alabama football.
One chapter of Williams’ career is closed, and another one begins soon. He looks back on his path so far without any regrets.
“The good, bad, ups and downs, everything,” Williams said. “The entire process was amazing for me, so I wouldn’t change anything.”
(Photo: Manny Navarro / The Athletic)