Kailik Williams Citadel football

The Citadel's Kailik Williams (No. 7) was the SoCon defensive player of the year last season. (Zach Bland/The Citadel)

Growing up in Ormond Beach, Fla., Kailik Williams didn't really have a bedroom to call his own. With 18 people packed into a three-bedroom house, sleeping space was hard to come by.

"I usually slept on the floor, on a big pallet," Williams said. "We all slept there. Sometimes I slept with my grandma, sometimes with my mom, sometimes on the couch. Wherever we laid down, that's where we slept."

Williams, now a senior defensive back at The Citadel and the Southern Conference defensive player of the year last season, grew up in a house filled with two brothers, a sister, cousins, grandma and mom and aunts.

College football, he said, was his way out of a tough situation.

"I needed to get away," he says simply.

His mom worked at a local hospital before she got laid off, then became a phlebotomist, someone trained to draw blood from patients. His father was not around.

"It was a struggle, it really was," Williams recalls. "We really didn't have much. We depended on each other for everything. We needed each other and did everything together."

As tough as his childhood was, Williams was blessed in several ways. He was good at football, had an uncle and older cousin who showed him college football was possible, and a mom, Sheri Williams-Patterson, who kept him straight.

"My mom and my uncles and everyone was on me since I was little," he said. "They told me, 'Stay ahead, don't fall behind.' It's hard to get out from the bottom, so she made sure I went to school and did my work. She stayed on top of all of us."

Williams said he had one uncle who played at Louisville and then Bethune-Cookman, and a cousin who played at South Florida. Florida sophomore defensive lineman Jachai Polite is also a cousin.

"College football is what I wanted to do since I first started playing," Williams said. "I was one of the youngest and I saw them playing ball and going to college. I fell in love with the game. It just felt natural to me."

At Seabreeze and then Mainland high schools, Williams (now 5-11 and 185 pounds) became an undersized linebacker good enough to draw recruiting from Boston College, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee and South Alabama.

But he eventually landed at The Citadel, where defensive coordinator Blake Harrell saw him as a natural play-maker who'd fit well at the "rover" safety spot in the Bulldogs' scheme.

Williams played as a freshman, was second-team all-SoCon as a sophomore and last year led the Bulldogs with 103 tackles, including 10 for loss. He made The Citadel's play of the year with the "Pitch Six" touchdown return that forced overtime in a 24-21 win at Wofford.

"He's just got a knack for playing football, probably more than anybody I've seen in a long time," Citadel coach Brent Thompson said. "He has a knack for being around the ball, he's got great fits and a feel for where the ball is going to pop out.

"Our secondary coaches say he's always in the right spot. He's very rarely out of place."

Closing in on a degree in business entrepreneurship, Williams hopes to own his own sports store or gym after giving pro ball his best shot. Wherever he winds up, he said he'll be grateful.

"Growing up the way I did, it made me the man I am today," he said. "I don't take anything for granted, because we didn't have anything.

"Everything I get now, I count it as a blessing."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-967-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC