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Defensive back making most of chance to fire up UNLV defense

Jerrae Williams didn’t play a down for UNLV last year, but the junior defensive back was still the talk of the program during the offseason.

That’s the impact he made playing on the scout team while sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules.

Now he’s finally suiting up and making an impact in games, leading an improved defense for the Rebels, who are 2-1 going into their Mountain West opener at Utah State on Saturday.

“He’s a catalyst to not only our defense, but our whole team,” coach Marcus Arroyo said. “He has a personality that gets you going.”

Williams is tied for second on the team with 16 tackles and has a sack and interception. The Rebels are holding opponents to 22.7 points per game, which is fifth in the Mountain West.

Williams began his collegiate career in Division II at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He played in two games as a freshman before he suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the season.

He transferred to UNLV in late 2020, joining linebacker Jacoby Windmon, his old teammate at John Ehret High School in Louisiana. (Windmon transferred to Michigan State before this season.)

Williams appealed to the NCAA to regain his eligibility for 2021, but he was ultimately denied. Williams said feeling sorry for himself about not being able to play wasn’t an option.

When times were tough, he said he drew inspiration from his mother, who raised him and his four siblings on her own. Williams said the way she continued to work to provide for her children motivates him to keep going when he faces a little adversity.

“We still have plans, we still have goals, and they’re still achievable,” Williams said. “Nothing was stopped, just the timeline was pushed back. That’s what I had to tell myself a lot.”

Defensive coordinator Keith Heyward joined the Rebels’ staff in March. He said he was immediately impressed with the passion Williams played with that established him as a leader and earned him a scholarship for this season.

“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” Heyward said.

Williams’ passion and intensity has resonated with the rest of the defense. He said the way he’s been able to get the most out of his teammates is to lead by example and push everyone else to match it.

“He brings the energy every day. … He makes sure the whole defense is going,” sophomore defensive back Johnathan Baldwin said. “When he’s at a 10, he makes sure everyone else is at a 10. He makes sure to bring everyone along with him.”

Williams said he’s been impressed with how the young players have developed during the offseason. He said his own personal goals and the team’s goals are more achievable this season because everyone has bought in.

“Everybody here wants it,” Williams said. “Everyone here wants to play football and be a part of something great.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on Twitter.

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