OSU's multi-dimensional senior is getting plenty of attention from Iowa State coaches in anticipation of this Saturday's Big 12 opener in Stillwater.
"You watch Darrent Williams on tape and can see why he's going to be an extremely high draft pick," said ISU head coach Dan McCarney. "He's one of the best corners in college football. He is clearly one of the best punt returners in college football. The NFL guys will be all over him, as far as evaluations. Come April his name will be called early. He's the real deal."
Although the Cyclones haven't seen much of Williams through his four-year career, the talented senior is no stranger to other Big 12 wideouts. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2003 after grabbing six interceptions and breaking up 17 passes. He also returned an interception for touchdown against top-ranked Oklahoma. Against future conference champion Kansas State, Williams picked off two passes, returning one for a score.
Williams is the highest profile player in a Cowboy secondary that is the strength of the defense. Head coach Les Miles starts another senior cornerback in Robert Jones, and features a trio of junior safeties (Vernon Grant, Jon Holland, and Jamie Thompson).
All five starting defensive backs present numerous challenges to a young group of Cyclone receivers.
"I think with the speed they have in the secondary, we're going to have a real challenge back there," McCarney said. "Their secondary is outstanding. It's the best we've seen this year so far, no question. They lost some outstanding defensive ends last year, but they've got a lot of talent in their secondary."
Knowing what they're up against defensively in the passing game, ISU's offense will seek more balance than its last two games against Northern Illinois and Iowa. ISU gained just 183 yards on the ground in those two games, and averaged just two-and-a-half yards per carry.
Center Luke Vander Sanden's return from injury will help the offensive line grind out more yards. But the Cyclones' head coach is still looking for more consistent play from everyone involved.
"Luke Vander Sanden has missed a lot more snaps than he's played in," McCarney said. "With his presence, it will be good. Brian Lutter has done a good job filling in, but Luke is better than him. Luke being out of the mix hurt us. He took 14 snaps against Iowa and none against Northern Illinois. He has missed a lot of time, and getting him back in the lineup will help us.
"Offensively, we felt like we could be a little further along running the football. We felt we could be further along than we are right now, and have more yards per carry than a three-yard average. We're challenging everybody. We have some guys that have not played nearly as well as we think they could through three games. And hopefully Stevie Hicks will play Saturday like he's been practicing the last two weeks. We need more production from the running back position."
Some will say that Oklahoma State's passing game is unproven, as first-year quarterback Donovan Woods has thrown just 27 passes – completing just 11 of them – in three games. The Cowboys have become even more of a run-oriented this season with Woods under center than they were with Josh Fields leading the attack.
Yes, the Cowboys may be unproven, but they haven't been forced into throwing much. That's because Vernand Morency has rushed for a national-best 561 yards on 76 carries. He's averaging an incredible 7.4 yards per carry and has scored four touchdowns for OSU.
"The thing you see with number 33 is, even though you're in good position, have good leverage on the running back, or defeat a blocker, he'll just out-run you because of his speed," McCarney said. "He is a real talented running back. He was almost a 1,000-yard rusher off the bench last year, so he didn't just spring onto the scene this year. He's just picked up where he left off."
McCarney is right. Morency replaced an injured Tatum Bell towards the end of last season and rushed for 555 yards and six touchdowns on 72 carries. This season, the Cowboys are leaning on him even more to shoulder the load of OSU's offensive attack.
Just how run-oriented are the Cowboys? Their run-to-pass ratio is even higher than some other prolific Big 12 rush offenses have been in past seasons.
"They're 85 percent run through the first three games, and that's really high," ISU's head coach said. "That's probably even more so than K-State or Nebraska (in the past), even though it's similar in some ways from a percentage standpoint.
"But they're still very capable (of passing), and Woods is a real good quarterback and athlete. He's got a gun and they've got good receivers. About the time we decide to put 10 guys on the line of scrimmage and forget the pass, they'll burn us all day throwing the ball. We know they're capable. They're not rushing 333 yards a game without having a good plan and good people doing it. We're going to have to be very physical defensively and great tacklers."
Very special teams
While Williams has provided an explosive player in the punt return game, freshman kicker Jason Ricks is holding up his end of the deal. In fact, through three games, the newcomer can't get much better. He is a perfect 3-for-3 in field goals and has converted on all 16 of his PATs to lead the team in scoring with 25 points.
"He has come in and done a great job for them," McCarney said. "When you go (perfect) on PATs and three out of three in field goals, how do you improve? You just keep doing that. Their kicking game is real sound. Their coverage, protection, and returns are all real good."
Ricks' consistency could give the Cowboys a decided advantage in this aspect of special teams, as Cyclone kickers are struggling at an alarming rate.
Offensive tackle Cale Stubbe speaks with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Quarterback Bret Meyer takes a break from studying the OSU secondary.
Cornerback Ellis Hobbs will also have to concern himself with a strong Cowboy rushing game.