Ask Rodney Williams about his thoughts for the upcoming season, and one word will continue to pop into the conversation-hungry.
The senior running back used the word three times when giving his initial thoughts on his final year with the Commodores. Hungry for atonement. Hungry for success. Hungry for a chance to do what he has wanted to do for five years-turn the Vanderbilt football program around.
"Once the college experience is over, it is over," Williams said Sunday after practice. "Hopefully, this time around, I'll be able to make everything right."
Everything was right for Williams during his redshirt freshman season, when he ripped off four 100-yard games in the middle of the year. It appeared he would be Vanderbilt's No. 1 back for the foreseeable future as he pounded Duke for 106 yards on just six carries in Week Eight. Then he suffered a bruised shoulder early in the third quarter of that game, and his promising season was cut short.
As a sophomore, Williams' most memorable moment was Vanderbilt's most heartbreaking in recent memory. In Week 10 against Kentucky, with Vanderbilt in field goal range in the final minutes trailing by two, Williams fumbled for the first time all season. Kentucky recovered, and Vanderbilt's bowl chances went by the boards.
Last year was a personal nightmare for Williams from the start. He was demoted to the No. 3 back early in the season behind Jared McGrath and Ray Perkins, and he never recovered. He did not gain over 40 yards in any game, and had just 47 yards on 23 carries in SEC competition.
"I had some things happen to me last year, some nagging injuries that bothered me throughout the season," he said. "It took a mental toll on me, because I never felt like I was at my best. This year, I'm just planning on going all out. Whenever I get the ball, I'm just going to try to make plays."
With his diminished role on the team and the emergence of Perkins, there was speculation Williams would not even return for his fifth and final season at Vanderbilt. But that thought never really crossed Williams' mind.
"I just didn't want my career to end like that," Williams said. "I came here and wanted to turn this program into a winning program. The way I played last year, that is not the way I wanted to go out."
Williams enters the season as the No. 2 running back behind Perkins. Practice observers have noted Williams renewed intensity and work ethic and he has drawn some praise from the coaching staff.
"Rodney Williams worked as hard and has done as many things right as possible as any human being could in the offseason," said offensive coordinator Steve Crosby. "He is in better condition than he has ever been in and he is quicker than he has ever been. He is quicker now than when I first got here. He is really focused on football right now."
Crosby is planning to use Perkins, Williams and Lew Thomas in his one back offense in different situations. Barring any strange developments, Perkins will enter the Middle Tennessee State game as the No. 1 back, but Williams will certainly get his playing time.
"As situations come up, we are going to play to our players' strengths," Crosby said. "For example, I think Rodney Williams is an outstanding inside runner and pass protector, so he is going to be able to do that for us. Perkins is probably a little better outside runner than most people. Not that he can't run inside. All the running backs have strengths and weaknesses. We probably don't have a single back that is top-notch in all areas-run-blocking, pass-blocking, running the ball, catching it. Each guy brings something to the table."
What Williams brings, beyond his physical tools, is a bushel full of highs and lows during his first four years in Nashville.
"All of my experience just lets you know that when things are going good, they might now always stay good," he said. "I came across a lot of pitfalls along the way. Now, I'm just trying to climb over those pitfalls and have everything end on a high note."