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Original Issue

Running to the Rescue

DeAngelo Williams has rejuvenated Memphis football as he takes his shot at the NCAA rushing record

It's an early-evening practice at Memphis, and coach Tommy West is pacing the sideline, his gaze fixed on his senior running back, DeAngelo Williams, as Williams jukes defenders, makes graceful, over-the-shoulder catches and outruns even the wide receivers in a footrace. During one drill, a host of would-be tacklers converge on Williams, but no one can put a solid lick on the 5'10", 217-pound back.

"Just look at him," West says with a smile. "He's a home run hitter like Marshall Faulk. He's got the patience of Emmitt Smith and the quickness of LaDainian Tomlinson. Man, what a player. He's big-time."

To hear West tell it, Williams, the nation's leading rusher at 177.0 yards a game--a hefty 22.6 yards a game better than anyone else--is single-handedly responsible for resurrecting the Memphis program. The Tigers hadn't been to a bowl game in 30 years before Williams's arrival but have gone to one in each of the last two seasons. "Not only is he the kind of special player who can change a game in one play," says West, "but he's also been active in recruiting."

Williams will bring even more honor to Memphis if he can gain 2,335 yards this season. That's how many he needs to break Ron Dayne's Division I-A career record of 6,397 rushing yards. "Breaking the record is doable," says Williams, "but I need to stay healthy." He'll also need help from his team. After five games he's on pace to rush for 1,947 yards, which means Memphis would have to get into another bowl if he hopes to challenge the record. But last Saturday's 38-17 loss to Central Florida left the Tigers 1-2 in Conference USA and 2-3 overall.

Coming out of Wynne High in 2002, Williams was rated the No. 2 prospect in Arkansas by SuperPrep magazine. He was recruited by a dozen Division I-A powers, including Ole Miss, Colorado and Iowa, but he verbally committed to Arkansas, where his coach, Donald Campbell, had played and where friends and family wanted him to go. As signing day approached, however, Williams began to realize that he had chosen the Hogs to please everyone else, not himself. "Arkansas just didn't feel right to me," he says. Unsure of what he really wanted, he sent his letter of intent back to Arkansas unsigned. "Then the coaches called and told me that the offer was going to be off the table if I waited much longer. I didn't like that, so I started looking elsewhere."

Wynne, Ark. (pop. 8,500), is only 50 miles from Memphis, and Williams knew and liked the southwestern Tennessee city. He also liked what West had told him when he visited the campus there: He could play as a freshman and was talented enough to rewrite the Memphis record book. Three weeks after saying no to Arkansas, Williams committed to the Tigers.

"People in Wynne told me I'd never win a game at Memphis and I'd never play in a bowl game," says Williams, 22, who is scheduled to graduate in the spring with a marketing degree. "But I knew we'd turn it around."

There's no underestimating Williams's determination, and one sequence of plays last season illustrates that. Leading South Florida 16-7 in the third quarter, Memphis had first-and-10 at its own 32-yard line. Running a single-back spread offense, West called the Gut play, a run up the middle, and Williams gained six yards. West called Gut again, and Williams picked up six more yards. "At that point we kind of challenged DeAngelo," recalls West with a smile, "so we called Gut again." Williams took the handoff for five more yards. On the next play--yes, it was Gut--Williams broke through the line and sprinted 51 yards into the end zone. He finished the game with 263 rushing yards, a school record, and Memphis won 31-15.

This year Williams and the Tigers have a new staple on offense. "We're running our zone blocking play, when all the linemen just take on their guy and I get to pick my hole," says Williams. "It seems like I get 10 or 15 yards every time we call it."

Indeed, he averaged 9.7 yards a pop in last Saturday's loss, but with the Tigers trailing for much of the game, he ran only 14 times for 136 yards. Even so, his average for the last four games is still 200.0 yards, keeping alive his hopes for the NCAA record. But should he come up short, he's still grateful to have had a shot at it. "Just thinking about breaking the record is unbelievable," he says. "It's amazing how far I've come."

The Players to Beat

DeAngelo Williams ranks 15th on the Division I-A career rushing list with 4,947 yards and is 1,450 shy of the record held by Wisconsin's Ron Dayne. Here are the alltime leading major-college ground gainers.