As his sophomore season approaches, the uncertainty is gone. Williams has been through it all. He knows what it's like to be a star. And he knows what it's like to battle the immense frustration of being injured and unable to contribute. "It's a whole lot different now," Williams says. "I'm going into this season knowing what to expect. I'm not going in with so many questions and wondering if I can do this or do that. The team knows I'm about working hard and not about talk."
Williams, perhaps the most celebrated Auburn running back signee in more than 20 years, went down with a shoulder injury against Alabama last season just as he had blossomed. He's healthy now and ready to get after the high goals he has set for himself and his team. "I want to be considered one of the best backs in the nation this year," Williams says. "I want to be first-team All-SEC and first-team All-America. I want to rush for way over 1,000 yards. Those are individual goals, but our team goals are most important. We want to win the SEC championship and play for the national championship."
Williams says new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik are the right men in the right place at the right time. "With the new coaches and the players we have and the way this program is going, I don't see why we can't play with the elite teams in the country," Williams says. "Coach Petrino and Coach Chizik are two real sharp guys. I like both of them. I really felt like in the spring they already had the confidence of the players."
Auburn is well-stocked at tailback, but the only race is for second place. Williams is the man and will be the man unless he gets hurt. Running backs coach Eddie Gran puts him in some elite company. "He became a leader as a freshman," Gran says. "This is my 16th year and I haven't seen an impact on a football team by a freshman as what he's had on our team. I'm talking about work ethic, the way he handles himself in the classroom, everything. He's an all-around person and an all-around player."
Carnell Williams has been on campus this summer getting ready for the 2002 season.
At Miami, Ole Miss and Auburn, Gran has been around running backs who did great things and went on to the NFL. Williams, he says, stands alone. "I've been fortunate enough to be around some good running backs, a couple of first-round draft picks," Gran says. "He's the best right now I've coached."
Williams, by the way, says he has never had a second thought about his decision to sign with Auburn. "I'm very happy with my decision," Williams says. "If I was to go back, I wouldn't change it at all. I love the atmosphere here, the coaches and the players. I wouldn't change anything. My mom is in love with the place."
If you read the Florida newspapers, you will seldom see anything about Auburn's 23-20 victory over Florida last season without mention of the windy conditions. The constant theme is that it was the wind that caused Rex Grossman to throw four interceptions. That theory was discredited by none other than Rex Grossman when we talked in Gainesville last week.
"It just seemed like we were supposed to lose," Grossman says. "Every little thing went wrong. I had a couple of tipped passes for interceptions. I had one early that, at the time, I didn't even care about. I mean, we were going to win. The ball really didn't get affected by the wind that much. Here and there maybe, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was a little bit of overconfidence in our whole team. We had just crushed LSU, the game everyone had said early in the season we were going to lose.
"Auburn stayed in the game and stayed in the game. I think they got more confidence as the game went on into the third and fourth quarter. They were playing at home, everyone got into it and it just went their way."
Grossman and his teammates are working to learn new systems on both sides of the ball in the wake of Steve Spurrier's departure and the hiring of Ron Zook. They'll get a big test on Sept. 7 against defending national champion Miami. The highlight of that game should be the shootout between Grossman and Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey. Dorsey and Grossman will be two of the top contenders to win the 2002 Heisman Trophy.
"It's going to be fun," Grossman says. "We're not scared of our schedule at all. We are looking forward to playing the national champions to see how good we are right away."