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De’Antwan Williams (senior, sociology) has earned the nickname “Rocket” as a playmaker during his brief time on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania football team, but a look back on his college career shows the redshirt senior has overcome his fair share of obstacles to reach this level of success.
Williams’ career in the National Collegiate Athletic Association had gone from promising to unpredictable.
Though the running back has seemingly done nothing but make himself a name at IUP, Williams’ rollercoaster of a journey dates back even several years before he took the field as a member of the Crimson Hawks.
“I think that after all I went through to come to IUP and be successful defines my career,” Williams said. “Most people would give up on their dream, but I believe when one door closes, another opens.”
Out of high school, Williams drew national attention for his talent despite his smaller size, appearing at or below 5-feet-9-inches on team depth charts. A standout at Woodbridge High in Virginia, he reportedly received offers to play at powerhouse Division I programs like the University of Alabama, but ultimately opted to commit to the only school he visited, Rutgers University.
“I love him,” CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said after the decision to play at Rutgers, echoing other network’s comparisons of former Scarlet Knights star Ray Rice to Williams.
“He’s small, but explosive, and very strong for a little guy.”
Early in his career at Rutgers, developing under the leadership of coach Greg Schiano, who now leads the Buccaneers in the NFL, Williams earned the Mark Mills Second Effort Award, which is issued to a team’s most improved offensive player in spring drills.
Absorbing the experiences of working with a Division I program, he appeared well on his way to college football stardom.
Injuries mounted, however, and just two games into his junior season in 2011, Williams was demoted from the starting running back job.
Having led the Scarlet Knights with 26 carries through the first two games of the year, he seemed to be in position for the most productive campaign of his Rutgers career, but the presence of recruited freshman Savon Huggins and other backs resulted in further depth chart changes and a slide by Williams to the No. 3 running back role.
“My experience at Rutgers was a learning experience, and I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Williams said. “The things I learned at Rutgers are lifetime lessons that I can use every day.
“I learned how to be a complete Division I player and teammate and overcome adversity as well as become a man.”
At that point, Schiano announced Williams’ decision to leave Rutgers, the same school he committed to a few years earlier with lofty expectations.
Just like that, one of the Knights’ most anticipated recruits at running back slid all the way off the roster, and questions of Williams’ future on the gridiron began to surface.
Thankfully, one of the coaches involved in the initial recruitment of Williams coming out of high school was Curt Cignetti, who had been with the Crimson Tide at the time, and now heads IUP’s coaching staff.
It didn’t take long for Williams to make a sudden, albeit beneficial transition to the Division II level, becoming a part of the rebuilt Crimson Hawks family for the 2012 season.
“I just felt it was time to move on with my college career, so I weighed my options,” Williams said. “I wanted to transfer to another Division I school, sit out a year and have two years of eligibility, but I fell in a hole by starting the first two games of the season, which burnt my junior year.
“During that year, though, my offensive coordinator at Rutgers was Frank Cignetti…. He passed the word to [his brother] Curt that I was leaving, we linked back up, and I ended up at IUP.”
On many occasions, transfer players need lots of time to adjust to their new home, and with IUP having a strong recent history of running the ball, it appeared as though Williams would need a “grace period” to acclimate himself to IUP’s system and serve as a sufficient complement to starter Harvie Tuck, who finished his own career among the school’s all-time rushing leaders.
Instead of undergoing a slow progression, Williams lived up to his nickname, rocketing into action as an immediate contributor for the Crimson Hawks. In 14 games in his debut season in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, he established himself as one of the country’s most dangerous change-of-pace options, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and finishing the 12-2 season with 1,325 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
“We feed off each other, and we learn new things due to our past experiences,” Williams said of the immediate chemistry he had with IUP. “And playing for Coach Cignetti is a great thing because he was a coach on a great Division I team so we can always learn from him.”
While playing behind Tuck, Williams earned a handful of awards, including All-PSAC West honors, but wasn’t guaranteed more than one season with the Crimson Hawks because of questions of his eligibility.
Widely considered one of the most explosive pieces of IUP’s conference championship offense, he had technically fulfilled four years of college play after the 2012 campaign but hoped to receive an additional season because of injuries that limited his time at Rutgers.
Following the trend of Williams’ rocky, yet rewarding, journey to success, the veteran back wasn’t informed of his eligibility for the 2013 season until the weekend of IUP’s opening game. Williams did receive confirmation of his long-awaited redshirt year, but only after hanging onto the word of the NCAA as to whether it would affirm his appeal of its initial decision.
“Waiting to see about my year of eligibility was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to experience,” he said. “Just knowing that my college career was in the hands of a committee was enough. But I knew I had a shot to get it back so I took the chance and had all the documentation for it.”
Cignetti, who has relied on Williams even more this season for the undefeated Crimson Hawks, believes the fifth-year running back has what it takes to “carry the load.”
Although Williams’ previous roles may have suggested he is nothing more than a flashy rotational player, Cignetti has made it clear Williams can handle the duties of a full-time starter, giving the senior a team-high 38 carries in a win over California University (Pa.) in Week 4.
With more than half of a season remaining in his college career, there’s no telling where Williams could end up.
If there are more challenges along the way, he has molded himself to overcome them once again, and if his determination is any indication of the success that is yet to come, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the “Rocket” could be blasting off at a level much higher than Division II in the near future.
“My dream is to play in the NFL,” he said. “I know I have caught attention from teams. I’m just going to play my game, stay healthy and hopefully everything will fall into place, and next year, I will be on someone’s roster.
“It’s been a very long road for me, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, and it has made me the person and athlete I am today.”