After slow start at Rutgers, running back finds his place at IUP
Even though Indiana (Pa.) was ahead, 17-14, something disturbing was going on during halftime of the Crimson Hawks' Division II playoff game at New Haven last week. It could be heard throughout the locker room.
“Coach (Curt Cignetti) comes over and says, ‘Rocket's throwing up,' ” said IUP assistant Mike Campolo, making unpleasant sounds to simulate the event. “The whole halftime, he never came out of the stall. The first time I saw him was on the field before the second-half kickoff.”
“Rocket” is the nickname for senior running back De'Antwan Williams, who emerged queasy but intact and played the second half. Starter Harvie Tuck was sidelined with cramps. Neither team scored after halftime, but that was fine with 11th-ranked IUP (12-1), which advanced to a Saturday showdown at No. 2 Winston-Salem State (12-0) in the D-II quarterfinals.
Williams wasn't feeling all that great in the second half, but “I knew I had to step up,” he said. “When people count on me, I put everything else aside.”
A transfer from Rutgers in his first and perhaps only season at IUP, Williams has provided a running threat to complement Tuck, the PSAC West offensive player of the year. He had seen considerable action in Cignetti's run-first offense, but when Tuck hurt his ankle in the next-to-last game of the regular season, Williams was elevated to No. 1.
He finished the Gannon game with 126 yards, and followed that with 129 yards in the Hawks' PSAC championship game win over Shippensburg. In playoff victories over Shepherd and New Haven, Williams rushed for 152 and 125 yards, pushing his season total to 1,215.
“You've got to work hard, and when you get your opportunity you've got to prepare yourself,” he said. “And that's what I was looking for and waiting for, and I prepared myself for it.”
Several big-name Division I programs, including Alabama, recruited Williams. But the only school he visited was Rutgers, which “showed me a lot of love,” he said. Greg Schiano, the coach at the time, appeared at Williams' high school in a helicopter. He talked to Williams, who is 5-foot-7, 197 pounds, about becoming the next Ray Rice. On his visit to the New Jersey campus, Williams loved the place and committed immediately after he returned home.
“That's where my heart was,” he said. “I liked the atmosphere. The offense fit me. I thought that everything would fall in place. But everything doesn't always happen the way you plan it.”
His progress slowed by a knee injury, Williams never got on track. He finally became the starter to open the 2011 season, only to be benched after two games and demoted to No. 3 on the depth chart. He left. Cignetti, always on the lookout for quality transfers, had recruited Williams as an assistant at Alabama. Moreover, Cignetti's brother, Frank Sr., was the Rutgers offensive coordinator and spoke highly of Williams despite his choppy career.
“Frankie gave him a very positive recommendation,” Cignetti said. “I remembered him from high school. He's a great kid, a really neat kid. I really like him as a person.”
Williams, who is appealing the NCAA for another year of eligibility, could play immediately at a D-II school. Cignetti said he told him that even with Tuck as the featured back, there would be enough carries. “We run the ball a lot,” Cignetti said.
Befitting his nickname, Williams is fast. “But what's really impressive is that he's not tall, he's not big, but he runs through more tackles than anybody,” said Campolo, the offensive line coach and running game coordinator. “He's a big reason we're where we're at.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.