Despite late start, Rodrick Williams getting chance in 'U' backfield
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Nearly midway through the season, Rodrick Williams Jr. didn't see it coming.
The Gophers football coaching staff told the true freshman running back early in fall camp they intended to redshirt him. So, Williams, who has gone by the nickname "Nugget" since he ate 50 McDonald's chicken nuggets during his official recruiting visit, spent his first four months on campus believing his collegiate debut was still a year away.
He understood it was always a possibility the plan could be altered, but that didn't seem likely.
Similarly built back Donnell Kirkwood was already cemented as the team's top backfield option. Plus, the Gophers had used five other tailbacks, so it was a good bet the scout team would be Williams' home.
By Tuesday last week, Williams knew something was up.
Coach Jerry Kill stopped him briefly to ask if he would be comfortable playing this season, but Williams didn't think much of it. It was even odder when "U" running backs coach Brian Anderson brought him in for a one-on-one film session.
As scenes of numerous Northwestern defensive formations shuffled by, reality finally connected with Williams.
"We started going over film," Williams said this week. "Then, he told me, 'When you go in on Saturday ...' And I was like, 'What? I'm going in?' He said, 'Yeah. You didn't think you were?' I was like, 'No.'"
Four days later, after his surprise had diminished, Williams found himself on Saturday in the Gophers' backfield for the first time, lined up next to sophomore quarterback Max Shortell.
With his ever-present sly smile, Williams insists nerves weren't an issue. It appeared that way when he caught a block from the right side of the offensive line in the third quarter and bullied his 5-11, 240-pound frame through the gap for a 16-yard gain. His three carries for 20 yards combined with his work on the kickoff unit to make for a solid initial outing.
It's premature to form more than a cursory opinion about the Gophers' late decision to pull Williams' redshirt. But on first take, the Gophers seemingly received what they wanted out of the strikingly composed 18-year-old.
"He's got a pop. When he hits you he snaps you," Kill said. "We don't have many guys who have that natural pop. I really think when he gets it all figured out he's going to be a really good back."
Following offseason speculation of how carries would be distributed in the Gophers' muddled backfield, Kirkwood -- the team's oldest returning tailback -- has emerged as the primary source.
In six games, the redshirt sophomore has handled 71% of the carries among the six tailbacks who have seen playing time this season (111-of-155 carries). With a bruising, up the middle running style, Kirkwood has totaled 467 yards (77.8 per game) on an average of 18.5 attempts.
Despite Kirkwood's success, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover started becoming increasingly concerned with the possibility of overloading his aggressive tailback. Limegrover wanted someone who could periodically replicate Kirkwood's presence in downhill running situations.
Originally, junior college transfer James Gillum was projected to share a large bulk of carries with Kirkwood, but he has faded dramatically from the Gophers' plans, having not played since the third week of the season.
Sophomore David Cobb has failed to latch on to an increased role, with his lone carry coming at Iowa. Redshirt sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye weren't options as they have been primarily used on runs out to the edges of the field.
After Kirkwood carried the ball 28 times against Syracuse in Week 4, discussions about bringing in Williams sprouted up.
"I think that was a little bit too much for (Kirkwood)," Limegrover said, "so to have a player in the same kind mold as him, a pounder, a kid that has that quick burst to be able to get in there and dispel Donnell, gives us a little bit of juice. That's one thing about Roderick -- he's got some juice to him."
Recruited out of Lewisville High School in Texas, Williams -- like Kirkwood -- is deceptively fast given his stout nature. He isn't going to make a highlight reel with a precisely executed spin move or juke, but he has a physical edge that can shake a defender.
"I don't really make too many cuts, because I'm 240 pounds," Williams said, laughing. "I don't really have time to do all that, so it's downhill."
Williams exudes the potential to fit smoothly into Limegrover's offensive system, making it even more of a surprise that the Gophers opted to use him to shore up their depth, both at tailback and on special teams, six games into the season.
Williams wasn't the only true freshman to make his debut last Saturday. Lincoln Plsek ditched his redshirt and was inserted as a third tight end with senior John Rabe and sophomore Drew Goodger.
Since taking over as head coach a year ago, Kill has not hidden his intention to attempt to restructure the program by relying on raw, inexperienced players.
In 2011, the Gophers had 10 true freshmen log minutes. They matched that number this season, with Williams and Plsek becoming the ninth and 10th freshmen utilized so far.
Kill showed last year that he wouldn't let a season's duration prevent him from bringing in a freshman if he felt the team's depth was in need of padding.
Sophomore safety Cedric Thompson didn't play in his first game until the Gophers' sixth match-up, a 45-17 loss at Purdue. Sophomore right guard Caleb Bak' debut came even later, when he stepped in as a backup on the offensive line seven games in before eventually starting the Gophers' final four games.
If Williams has any regrets or concerns about his shortened freshman season, you would never be able to pinpoint them through his lighthearted personality. He has developed into another notable element in the youth movement the Gophers are currently undergoing.
And as his nickname suggests, he embraces his goofy nature.
"He's hilarious. He's just a character. He definitely brings a certain vibe and certain atmosphere to the team," safety Brock Vereen said. "All through camp, even through the first half of the season, he's been a load for us to tackle (in practice). I'm glad he finally got his chance."