“I honestly didn’t know the time that they put into everything. Once (players) come over here after class, everything is laid out for us.” Josh downs, Former LSU defensive lineman, now graduate assistant coach
They share a common first name, distinguished careers as LSU linemen, and a desire to continue their involvement with the Tigers.
Josh Williford was a starting offensive lineman until a second concussion in less than a year abruptly ended his playing career during preseason camp. Josh Downs was a starting defensive lineman before he completed his eligibility last season.
Each is a student coach as he takes one final class to get his diploma in December. Williford is assisting offensive line coach Greg Studrawa with a unit that was reshuffled before the season, partly because of his unexpected departure. Downs is assisting defensive line coach Brick Haley with a group featuring all new starters.
The lines have shown consistent development and had their best performances in a 17-6 victory against Florida on Saturday.
“Both guys are selfless, hard working, and they add enthusiasm to the effort,” coach Les Miles said. “It’s fun to watch. I think they help the team.
“It’s funny how they have comfortably taken to a coaching role. I don’t think there’s any question that they both look at what we’re trying to get accomplished as coaches very differently now.”
Williford and Downs, for their part, said they’ve learned just how hard coaches work.
“I honestly didn’t know the time that they put into everything,” Downs said. “Once (players) come over here after class, everything is laid out for us.”
Added Williford: “You see why they get mad sometimes and why they get happy sometimes, and you kind of understand it and the hours they put in here.”
Williford, who helps Chris Kragthorpe and August Mangin coordinate the scout-team defense, remembers an incident similar to when young parents finds themselves correcting their child and sounding like their own parents.
An unnamed member of the scout team “messed up,” and Williford said he “freaking unloaded on him.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m becoming one of those kinds of coaches,’” Williford said with a laugh. “Coach Miles looked at me and laughed. I always told myself I’d never be one of those guys, and I’m becoming one of those guys.”
The first sign that Williford and Downs changed roles came the first time each showed up for practice dressed in what guard Vadal Alexander playfully called Williford’s “little coaching outfit.”
Williford — who’s the biggest person on the field at 6-foot-7, 334 pounds — would look like Miles in his coaching outfit, Alexander said, “if coach Miles would eat a couple more burgers and some fries and grew a couple of inches — like six or seven.”
Downs said the jokes about being “on the other side” went away pretty quickly.
“The guys really took my experience into account,” he said. “The things I was telling them were pretty good, and they started listening.”
Williford and Downs had already been mentors to younger players, so the new role wasn’t totally foreign.
“You get the best of both worlds,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “Somebody who played with you, so they know what you go through every game, and somebody who can see it through a coach’s eyes too.”
Sometimes, current players said, hearing something from a former teammate resonates differently than it does coming from a position coach.
“No offense to coach Stud, but he played football like 50 years ago,” guard Trai Turner said with a smile. “It’s good to hear from somebody who played a little more recently.”
Downs said he tries to supplement Haley’s coaching by sharing “little things I picked up that coaches didn’t tell me, that I had to learn on the fly as a player.”
Williford said he isn’t on the sideline for road games, such as this week’s trip to Ole Miss, because he was on the roster at the start of the season and would count against the traveling roster.
But Downs does travel, and both are on the sideline at home.
“When I walk out in Tiger Stadium, I still get the itch,” Downs said. “I want to put my hand in the dirt and I want to fire off.”
Downs, who had a tryout at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie minicamp, said the hardest part has been learning to verbalize what he can instinctively demonstrate.
Downs’ ability to demonstrate is what put him in this spot. He heard that LSU was hosting a camp for high school players during the summer and volunteered to help.
Shortly after the camp, Haley and Mills brought back Downs, a Bastrop native who played in 61 games, starting 21 in four seasons.
“When you looked at the film,” defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said, “he was always the first one coming off the line of scrimmage and punching someone in the mouth. He was always a great, physical player. That’s why we respect him so much.”
The same is true of Williford, a native of Dothan, Ala., who played in 31 games and started 19.
“It was a very smooth transition,” said Alexander, who was competing with Williford to be the starter at left guard when Williford was injured. “Whatever Williford does, he does with great passion and does it right. When he came out, it just felt right.”
When Williford — who missed the last seven games last season because of a concussion he suffered at Florida — suffered another blow to the head in the fourth preseason practice, his playing career ended abruptly.
The medical staff said he could get as many additional opinions as he liked, but it wouldn’t change the fact that the best thing for him was to give up football.
“The doctors said, ‘We don’t want you to be 40 and suffering from headaches still,’” Williford said. “I said, ‘You know what? I agree with y’all.’”
Williford, who’s symptom-free now, said he wasn’t ready to just go away.
“I just wanted to help the equipment guys out if I could, just do something,” he said. “This was going to be my last year anyway as a fifth-year senior. I just wanted to make sure I contributed as much as possible in any way I could.”
Miles said the student coaching idea occurred to him even while Williford was still being evaluated.
“This is very much still his team,” Miles said.
Williford said he jumped at the opportunity, recalling the 2011 season when Josh Dworaczyk helped out Studrawa after being sidelined by a knee injury.
Williford saw what kind of impact that had on him as a player, and he wanted to have the same effect on others.
“A guy like that, who has given five years of his life to LSU,” Turner said of Williford, “you don’t want to see him just go down and then leave. It’s good that he can be a part of the team, a part of this season. He’s just as important as we are.”
In a couple of months, as the sixth-ranked Tigers prepare for a bowl game, Williford will have his degree in agricultural business, and Downs will have his in sports administration as both contemplate whether they want to pursue further coaching — or if it was just a way to bring closure to their football careers at the same time as their academic careers.
“I just felt like if I’m still going to be here and take that one class, I can at least give back to the people who gave to me,” Downs said.
He said he and Williford get a kick out of seeing players successfully put their coaching to use during a game.
“You try to make guys better,” he said. “To actually see them put into effect Saturday night something I showed them is just perfect. You think, ‘I just told him that. I kind of like this experience.’
“Actually seeing it work is the greatest accomplishment of any coach. That’s what we get out of it while not being able to play.”