Williams Grateful For First-Team Turn

He'd been on the field before, fulfilling one of a walk-on's goals. But last week Sam Williams achieved something closer to a dream: he was part of Mississippi State's starting lineup for opening night. Best of all…the volunteer receiver was not surprised by his first-team status.

"I had kind of known in the week before, because I was running with the ones. I just accepted the role, and was like if they wanted me to be a two I'd be a two and if they wanted me to start I'd start."

Mississippi State wanted him to start. Williams, a sophomore, rewarded the trust by performing like, well, a starter. He caught three passes for 27 yards, including a 17-yarder, in the rout of Memphis.

Understand now; just because a starting job in game-one didn't catch him by surprise, it does not mean Williams took it for granted. Not at all. If anything Williams has done more than the usual walk-on to get this far, this soon.

"It was just kind of a surreal thing," he said. "Because I've worked so hard, and I've had a lot of adversity since I've been here. But I just kept working through it and working through it, and it was great being out there and play. And I hope I have many more in my career."

More starts, he means. Based on pre- and early-season evidence the odds seem favorable. "He did a good job in training camp," Coach Dan Mullen said of his call to put Williams on the field first ahead of some other veteran—and scholarship signee—receivers. Though, the coach qualifies, starting at State has to be kept in a different perspective.

"I don't think Sam played any more plays than anybody else at receiver, we're going to rotate everybody just as much. We're going to use it as a reward. Hey, you did a great job, you get to start."

At one of the outside receiver spots, specifically. A coach claimed Williams could play H, X, or Y in this scheme, but H—the slot—is exceptionally well-stocked. So, "Right now I just play the outside positions."

Williams isn't the biggest or fastest in his group, but he has one label locked; he is the hardest-working wideout. It's a habit ingrained long ago. "When I was young what I decided was I was going to learn the concepts so that if I'm ever needed at a position I can go play it.

"To this day I can go out there and I know every position just about, because I know the concepts of the plays. So I try to stay in the film room and stay on top of stuff like that, and even in my game preparation I try to know what is going on in the game." By the way, Williams' study habits just happen to mesh nicely with Mississippi State's version of the spread. "Our plays are based on concepts," he notes.

It's a common concept among many a high school receiver that with just a bit of luck they can carry their game to the college level, even if not offered a real scholarship. Williams did have some advance info from his prep coach as well as former NRHS guys who had walked-on at other school. None sugar-coated the odds, though.

"I knew I had a bit obstacle in front of me. But this was something that I wanted to do and I didn't care what anybody told me if I could or couldn't, I was going to come play here at Mississippi State." Good choice, he found out. Neither Mullen nor Rockey Felker painted an unrealistic picture of what it would take to make the Bulldog roster…but they did not discourage a willing kid, either.

Williams, as do his fellow walk-ons now wearing varsity maroon and white, appreciated the honesty and straight-up proposition. "They're going to give you a fair chance; its all about how hard you work really. I mean if you're a hard worker you're going to get a chance. And if you're not…" Right, enough said.

Still it takes more than even work to get noticed, and Williams found the best way to get attention in this program. Special teams, specifically scout-team kickoff. "We had about ten reps that day and I ran down the field and every time I was first person down the field. I was ten yards in front of everybody." That did the trick…not to mention being able to run a route and catch a ball as part of a still-restocking receiver corps.

Williams' next battle was overcoming a knee injury in 2010 spring training that could have derailed his career before it really began. He'd walked-on the previous fall out of Northwest Rankin High School, had yet to get any live playing time, so it was something of a crossroads. Almost a year-and-a-half later Williams doesn't see any lingering results.

"I might have lost a step but it doesn't feel like it to me." It surely doesn't seem that way to his coaches because they are completely confident in Williams' still-developing talents. He caught one ball as a '10 frosh, for 38 yards against Alcorn State, and saw duty in six other games including four conference contests.

Now this soph season is off to a faster start. Literally. "Yeah, but right now I'd say I'm not where I need to be as a SEC receiver. Me, personally, I'm not satisfied. I've got to keep going, I've got to get better. There's a lot of things I need to work on to be a SEC receiver."

Beyond that, for all the pride Williams can take in having a Mississippi State on his still-young record, he is pragmatic about his particular position. "Nothing is different really with the receivers, because we're kind of ‘receiver by committee' this year. I mean we're going to throw the three guys out there but three plays later we're going to throw three more guys out there.

"So I wouldn't say we necessarily have starters; we have guys. We have nine or ten guys that are going to come out and play."

All of them must play as well as currently possible if Mississippi State is to make a bigger statement Saturday. Some giddy fans are already counting Auburn out after their opening-day scare. Williams knows better. In Bulldog minds these are the reigning champs until somebody can knock the crown aside…or even take it away. Williams saw that on TV last Saturday.

"I was at my uncle's house, and watching it pretty attentively! Obviously you can't see of the secondary from that angle, but we've watched the game film too so we have a pretty good idea what they're going to do."

FIRST TURNS: Dan Mullen put Williams in the first game first-team for the state reason: it was a reward for effort and execution in both spring and preseason. It also said something about the Bulldog pass-catching corps, he pointed out.

"The fun thing about receiver battles is we don't have guys up here and down there; we're all kind of right in the middle. So how you perform on a daily basis can affect whether you start. And that's a neat reward."

Mullen also regards first- and second- and such-team status differently from fans and media. To him, it is useful for determining practice rep order and game rotations, but not a lot else. "That's something I never cared about in my career," he said. At least he didn't until one game when he was coordinating the Florida offense.

"Our opening possession (came when ) we blocked a punt and got the ball on the one-yard line. We put in goal-line and scored a touchdown. Two kids lost their consecutive start streak and everybody went crazy because they didn't play the first snap. They were starters, but they didn't play the first snap of the game.

"I realized then whoever plays the first play of the game people make a really big deal out of. It doesn't mean anything to the team but on the periphery people make a big deal out of it. So we use that as a reward."

ROAD TRIP: It's been a long time since Mississippi State opened a season with consecutive road trips. The 2000 season, in fact. It was a successful opening too as those Bulldogs beat both Memphis and Brigham Young. But they pushed the road-luck too far, into a third week, and lost at South Carolina.

These Dogs will fortunately be home for game-three, next Thursday against LSU. Interestingly though Mullen is not overly concerned about kicking off 2011 with two away games. For one thing, "I guess the benefit of it is there are a lot more home games after the first two games!" he joked. "But playing on the road last week probably helps for this week, guys feel a little bit more comfortable with it.

"I don't mind road games, I think a lot of times it brings you closer together because you don't have distractions. Not which family is coming, who am I worried about, who is staying in my apartment, I've got Cousin Joey and Aunt Betsy coming to the game and I've got to get all these tickets. On the road it's just us locked in the hotel room."

Presumably the cousin and aunt will be tuned in for the 11:21 kickoff at Auburn.

Meanwhile the Tigers have had consecutive home games to start their season. The crowd rightly turned out for last week's debut to celebrate their remarkable 2010 national championship run, but left—some early—unsettled by opening day sputters. There are obvious roster reasons led by losing two of the best players in the game, and this revised lineup adapting to new emphases in the gameplan.

Mullen, however, is uniquely qualified to offer another insight. A championship season has at least some sort of ‘hangover' in almost any program. "I've seen those situations before, where a new group steps on the field. The last group that left the field was national champs. You roll out some young guys and it's some pretty big shoes to fill for a lot of players."

His first-hand experience came after Florida's 2006 championship run, followed by a four-loss season. "There were a lot of guys that just walked in expecting to win, and we had a bad season. In terms of my time there.There are some different pressures involved. You have to realize you have to work for it yourself." The Bulldogs coach points out though that those already writing off Auburn in '11 had best hold off for a while.

"It kind of takes a week to get used to it. So I expect them to be a much, much better team than we saw last week. And I still think we saw a very good, talented, explosive football team that scored 42 points and found a way to win a football game."

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