Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Stardom has come quickly for Williams

The conversation started innocently enough.

"Are you Ryan Williams?" the middle-aged woman asked.

"Yes," the Virginia Tech tailback replied.

Then, well, it became not much of a conversation at all.

"She just started screaming," Williams said with a smile, recalling last week's encounter at The Farmhouse restaurant in Christiansburg. "She was like, 'Oh my God! You're my favorite player on the team!' I gave her a big hug and we took some pictures, then I went to go eat."

Stardom. It's come so fast for the 19-year-old Williams that he can hardly fathom it.

Now it's almost become routine: We talked, she screamed, we hugged, we posed, I ate.

He'll be leaving a lecture hall on a weekday morning, and fellow students will stop him and ask for autographs. He estimates that he's posed for 300 pictures with fans so far this season. He chuckles at the restaurant incident, honored by the attention but puzzled at how somebody could react to him that way.

"I'm just an average dude," Williams says.

But then he takes the ball from Tyrod Taylor and becomes something else. Something breathtaking.

Williams enters tonight's matchup with Georgia Tech as the ACC's leading rusher, and it's not even close.

No. 2 on the list is the reigning conference player of the year, Jonathan Dwyer of the Yellow Jackets, but his 85.2 yards per game average is 37 shy of the pace set by the Hokies' outstanding freshman, who ranks fifth in the nation with 734 rushing yards. (In fairness to Dwyer, the Georgia Tech back would have a 101-yard average if not for the Miami game, in which an injury held him to 7 yards on five carries.)

Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite didn't see the restaurant reaction from the fan -- he joked that it was probably his wife who flipped out -- but he's been proud to watch Williams handle himself with humility and class when approached by admirers.

"I think that comes with the territory when you're playing like he is," Hite said. "Now all of a sudden, there's going to be 34 jerseys all over that stadium. There's already a bunch already. I've had some personal friends already bring 10 or 12 by my office to get him to sign them for them. ...

"I think it's absolutely wonderful for him. I really do. He's earned it. And he's worked so hard to get to where he is today. Each week, it just seems like he gets better."

Indeed, one of Williams' most spectacular runs came last week against Boston College. He started toward the right side, got hit by a linebacker, then reversed field and turned potential disaster into a 29-yard gain.

"You son of a ... GREAT JOB!" Hite remembers thinking. "It looked like it was going to be about a 15-yard loss."

Williams' ability to keep plays alive has had a ripple effect on the rest of the offense. Guard Sergio Render said he's learned that backside blocks often are more important than those on the front side, because Williams is apt to ditch the designed hole and go elsewhere. His elusiveness -- along with that of Taylor -- encourages the entire line not to give up on plays and make extra blocks downfield.

"I think that motivates 'em," Virginia Tech offensive line coach Curt Newsome said. "I don't think there's any question about it."

Williams said he takes no extra motivation sharing the field with Dwyer tonight, but he has a healthy respect for the Georgia Tech star.

"That's a big guy, man," said the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Williams, who gives up three inches and 30 pounds to Dwyer. "As far as size, I don't come nowhere close. He's got all the tools. He's fast, quick, strong, can catch well.

"I think I can do all those things well also, so it'll be a good match."

If he wins that matchup and the Hokies win the game, Williams will only get more attention around campus. But he doesn't mind -- and neither does Hite.

"I can remember 18 years ago, nobody wanted to talk to us here," Hite said. "Nobody. So I went through those times, too. Frank Beamer's the best in the world at it. I've never seen a guy take the time that he does to sign something for somebody, talk to somebody.

"I think that's part of [Ryan's] role right now. He's a role model, and any kid who comes up to him, any parent who comes up to him, I encourage that they deal with those people."

Even the occasional screamer.

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