Dan brawls with Rawls

They grew up on the same playgrounds, attended the same middle school, played on the same high school football line and signed scholarships with the same college. They were best friends and pretty near inseparable.

Dan Williams and Malcom Rawls will be foes, however, when Tennessee hosts Memphis tonight at 7 in Neyland Stadium. Williams is a defensive tackle for the Vols. Rawls is an offensive guard for the Tigers. That means they'll be going head-to-head a lot.

Their individual matchup should be pretty entertaining. Rawls is 6-5 and 330 pounds, Williams 6-3 and 316. Both signed with UT out of Memphis East High School but Rawls transferred to his hometown university after one year on The Hill. That makes tonight's game with the Tigers extra special for Williams.

"We both signed here originally, and this will be the first time me and him played against each other in anything," Williams noted earlier this week. "We usually were on the same team since middle school. He's closer to me than a best friend; he's like my brother."

Obviously, losing a brother is tough. So, when Rawls decided to transfer from UT in 2006, Williams took the news hard but tried to be philosophical about it.

"It was his life, and he felt it was the best decision for him," the Vol senior noted. "I couldn't do nothing but agree to support him, being his friend."

Although the two stopped being teammates when Rawls left UT, they never stopped being friends.

"We keep in touch," Williams said. "Every week I talk to him. We remain very close."

Still, being six hours apart was a new experience and a really unpleasant experience, especially those first few months.

"It was like a family member leaving," Williams recalled. "My freshman year I really didn't know anyone else besides my other teammates. We have a special bond, and when he left I was like 'What do I do next?' The thought of leaving went through my mind."

Fortunately for Tennessee, Williams never acted on that thought because he has become one of the finest defensive tackles in college football.

In retrospect, as much as he missed having Rawls nearby, Williams figures all's well that ends well.

"For the most part, things worked out," he said. "Malcom had to go his own way, and I think it made both of us stronger. Things worked out for him and they worked out for me fine. It's going to be exciting to see him on the field."

It's going to be exciting but it's also going to be intense. Friends or not, Williams will be doing everything he can tonight to make sure he prevails in his individual battles with Rawls and ensures that Tennessee prevails in the outcome.

"This game is something years later we'll talk about to our kids," Williams said, grinning smugly. "And I just want to win and tell 'em I beat him."

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