Thirty minutes after he had gutted the Boston College defense for 159 rushing yards in a little more than two quarters of work last Saturday, Ryan Williams sat in a windowless room beneath the north stands at Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium, gazed at a tattoo on his right forearm and explained his love of Sweetness. "I was seven years old when I first saw Walter Payton," said Williams, the Hokies' 5'9", 205-pound redshirt freshman running back, looking at the words LIL SWEETNESS displayed on his arm. "My mom's best friend popped in a videotape, and he broke like eight tackles on one run against Kansas City. Ever since that day I've wanted to be like him."
Wearing number 34 in honor of Payton, Williams is a big reason why No. 4 Virginia Tech is back in the national title picture five weeks after losing to Alabama. Against the Eagles, the Hokies played their most complete game of the season, outgaining BC 441 yards to 163 in a 48--14 win. "We're hitting on all cylinders," said coach Frank Beamer. "That's what excites me."
So must the play of Williams. A native of Manassas, Va., Williams ran for more than 3,000 yards at Stonewall Jackson High, where he was a four-year starter. After his freshman season his coach, Loren Johnson, a former Tech cornerback, sent video of Williams to Hokies running backs coach Billy Hite. After viewing the video, Hite, who's now in his 32nd season in Blacksburg, called Johnson and told him that a scholarship was waiting for Williams—the first time that Hite had extended an offer to a 15-year-old. Three years later Williams turned down offers from Florida, Notre Dame and Boston College, among others, to sign with Tech.
"I've coached a lot of great backs—guys like Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs—and Ryan is better at his age than any of them," Hite says.
When Williams arrived in 2008, though, his pass-blocking was shaky, so the staff decided to redshirt him. While on the scout team he gained 10 pounds, improved his blocking and routinely sliced through the first-team defense with a combination of speed (he runs a 4.43 40), power (he can bench-press 345 pounds) and elusiveness. This spring, the first time he touched the ball in the opening scrimmage, he ran 80 yards for a TD. Then in the spring game, he sprinted 56 yards to the end zone—also on his first touch. Like that his legend was born.
It's growing. Thrust into the starting lineup after Darren Evans tore his left ACL in mid-August, Williams has hit the ground running. Facing a brutal early schedule that included games against Alabama, Nebraska and Miami, Williams has rushed for 100-plus yards in four of six games. He ranks sixth in the country in rushing (122.3 yards per game).
"I came to Virginia Tech because they've produced so many NFL running backs," Williams says. "Hopefully, I can be the next in that line. Hopefully, the best is yet to come."
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ANDREW HANCOCK (WILLIAMS)
BACKUP PLAN A reserve at the start of preseason camp, Williams is sixth in the country in rushing.