Wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams brings the right experience to Auburn

Cornelius Williams had a good feeling about Auburn football’s decision to hire Bryan Harsin as coach, even if not many in the state of Alabama knew much about him then.

Troy played a home-and-home series against Harsin’s Boise State teams in 2017 and 2018. Williams, the Trojans wide receivers coach at the time, said he saw a team that was “very, very disciplined” and well-prepared. He was so impressed that he tuned in to Harsin’s introductory press conference on Christmas Eve.

“I told my wife, ‘This is actually a really good hire,’” Williams recalled Monday. “I said, ‘A lot of people probably don’t know who he is or what he stands for, but this is a really good hire because of what he’s been able to accomplish and what he’s done over at Boise.’”

Twenty-three days later, Harsin hired Williams to be his wide receivers coach at Auburn. He’s one of the youngest assistants on the staff. Only two — running backs coach Cadillac Williams and cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge — have less college coaching experience.

But Cornelius Williams might have exactly the right experience for the role. He joined a staff at Auburn led by a head coach who has zero ties to the state of Alabama or the SEC — a first for the program since it hired Earl Brown in 1948 — at a time when coaches haven’t been allowed to get on the road and recruit because of the NCAA’s COVID-19 restrictions.

So Williams is an invaluable resource. You’d have a hard time finding a coach with more experience in the state of Alabama than he does. In fact, he has spent only one year of his life living outside its borders — the 2011 season as the wide receivers coach at Murray State in Kentucky.

Williams was born in Mobile. His family moved to Birmingham when he was young. He starred at Hoover High and was a four-year letterman at Troy. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at South Alabama in 2011. He coached at North Alabama in 2012, Jacksonville State in 2013 and UAB in 2014 before returning to Troy in 2015.

“Being all over like that was definitely huge for me just building relationships throughout the state and being around a bunch of great coaches and being around a bunch of great high school coaches,” Williams said.

Williams has earned a reputation for developing his players along the way, too. That will be crucial going into his first season with the Tigers, whose lack of returning experience and production at the wide receiver position have been well-documented.

Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove are gone, taking with them 67.1 percent, 72.2 percent and 83.3 percent of Auburn’s catches, yards and receiving touchdowns last season, respectively. Stepping up to replace them is a group of 10 players who have on-paper talent — five were former blue-chip recruits — but only 27 catches for 357 yards in their careers combined.

The only true veteran in that group, senior Shedrick Jackson, spent the first half of the spring sidelined with an injury, as did sophomore Ze’Vian Capers and redshirt freshman J.J. Evans.

“Everybody here knows how it is in this league playing against some of the best competition in the country,” Cornelius Williams said. “We have to do every little thing right in order to be a much better group and continue to gain that experience.”

It’s not the first time Williams has been in this situation. Four of Troy’s top five receivers in his first season on staff in 2015 were seniors. Two of the top returning receivers in 2016 were Emanuel Thompson (19 catches for 295 yards) and Deondre Douglas (21 catches for 172 yards).

Thompson led the Trojans with 80 catches for 820 yards that season, with Douglas not far behind with 60 catches for 740 yards. Both caught six touchdowns.

“I think that guy on the field, the focus, the coaching points, the details — those things really stood out to me,” Harsin said about Williams.

He has plenty of intriguing players to work with as he tries to replicate that success on the Plains. Ja’Varrius Johnson reminds him of J.J. Nelson, who had 655 receiving yards as a senior for Williams at UAB and is going into his seventh season in the NFL. Kobe Hudson is a “natural-born leader.” Malcolm Johnson Jr. has the speed “to blow the top off” a defense. Elijah Canion, the star of January’s Citrus Bowl, asks questions constantly as he tries to improve his craft.

It’s Williams’ job to mold them.