Prime Time: Derrick Williams

Derrick Williams' high school coach advises Penn State fans to "strap it up and buckle up," because a big-time playmaker will be hitting the field in Happy Valley this spring.

There’s nothing quite like a successful recruiting season to fuel expectations in college football.

Though Penn State has mustered a combined seven victories over the last two years — just three in the Big Ten — the Lions have snagged a couple of key recruits to inject needed speed into their program.

The biggest catch so far has been Derrick Williams of Eleanor Roosevelt High in Maryland. Rated the No. 1 athlete in the country, Williams has already enrolled at Penn State, is currently taking classes and will participate in spring practice.

His high school coach, Rick Houchens, did nothing to douse the recruiting fury surrounding Williams. In fact, he fanned it.

“To all the Penn State fans, I say strap it up and buckle up because Prime Time has arrived at Penn State,” Houchens said last weekend during the 2005 Extreme Coaches Clinic in Altoona. “Derrick just thrives on competition. I’ve seen a lot of great players, but I’ve never seen a guy with this kind of passion.”

Houchens has been the head coach at Eleanor Roosevelt for eight seasons. During that time, his program has averaged “three-four” Division I players per year. Among them are current Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive end Derrick Burgess along with PSU senior defensive end Matthew Rice, and one of the plums of the 2004 recruiting class, Florida’s Derrick Harvey.

Williams rates in that company, Houchens said.

“He’s just a gifted kid, and I think what makes him special is his character,” he said. “He’s a typical Penn State type of kid — great off the field, great in the community, excellent in the classroom, and on the field, he’s just relentless.”

Houchens said Williams compares favorably with Ohio State speedster Ted Ginn. Williams played quarterback and receiver in high school.

“He’s such a great playmaker that I just game-planned around him,” he said. “He’s a Michael Vick-type of player so I played him at quarterback, but I knew he’d be projected to play receiver at the college and probably pro level.”

Williams could have gone anywhere in the country, but he was charmed by Joe Paterno, Houchens said, and “he wanted the opportunity to come in and be a difference-maker.”

Plus he’s convinced Paterno is going to open the offense.

“Coach Paterno realizes the game has changed,” Houchens said. “Penn State tradition is smashmouth and to be physical on defense. He (Paterno) told me he knows that’s not the case anymore, that there’s more speed involved and you’ve got to have guys who can stretch the field. Derrick can take a 5-yard pass play and turn it into a 50-yard run.”

Houchens doesn’t think Paterno plans to retire anytime soon.

“Joe’s going to stay until Joe gets ready to sit down,” he said. “Somebody’s going to have to arrest him to get him out of there and change all the locks. His health is very good. His mind is sharp as a tack, and the thing I’ve seen in him is the oil is burning hot in his boiler. I think he wants to go out on that top note.”

And Houchens leaves no doubt Derrick Williams is the player to sing it.

Neil Rudel covers Penn State football for the Altoona Mirror.

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