- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

Derrick Williams is two days away from the decision of a lifetime.

Florida … Oklahoma … Tennessee … Penn State … or Texas?

“Right now there’s a whole lot of pressure on me,” said Williams, the nation’s top prep football player, his fingers steepled in a subconscious plea for divine inspiration. “You could say I’m down to three schools, though I’m not telling anyone which three. But those three are pretty much dead even, so all this stuff is flying around in my head.

“I really just can’t wait until it’s over. But at the same time, I know it’s a huge decision for my career, and I want to make it the right one, because I know once it’s over, it’s over and there’s no going back.”

The latest suitor to football’s “Slash” nickname, the 6-foot, 195-pound quarterback/wide receiver/running back/defensive back/return man has spent the last several seasons tormenting opponents of Eleanor Roosevelt High from every skill position on the field.

And Wednesday, when he announces his college destination live on ESPNEWS at 3:30 p.m. from the Greenbelt school, prep football’s army of one instantly will improve the 2005 outlook of one fortunate program.

“He’s just an absolute gamebreaker,” said a recruiter who represents one of the aforementioned schools but by NCAA rule is not allowed to give an attributable quote about a recruit. “Think [USC’s] Reggie Bush but more versatile. Remember David Palmer at Alabama? He reminds me of a much bigger version of [Palmer]. He’s about as close to can’t-miss as you’ll get.”

His blue-chip value goes beyond his No. 1 ranking on Rivals.com, the nation’s premier recruiting network. It goes beyond his 57 college offers, a number representing more than half of the nation’s Division I-A programs. It can be measured most accurately by the lustmeter, by witnessing the relative levels of genuflection exhibited by the game’s top coaches as they engage in the desperate dance of courtship.

Only .50-caliber recruits can reduce elder statesmen like Joe Paterno to a schoolgirl-style note beginning with the underlined sentiment, “We need Derrick Williams.” What’s next, doodled hearts in the margins, a sign-off of scribbled X’s and O’s?

Only the best of the best was worthy of receiving the first call Steve Spurrier made after accepting his new post at South Carolina.

Only outrageous talents can prompt USC’s Pete Carroll, college coaching’s current king, to make a cross-country journey during a dead communication period last spring knowing all he could do was watch you practice without exchanging a word.

“We’ve had more than our share of Division I recruits around here, and just last year we had [Derrick Harvey], who was listed in the top 20 by every analyst,” said Eleanor Roosevelt coach Rick Houchens. “But with Derrick [Williams], it’s gone to another level. It’s been madness. With DH, West Coast coaches would call and request video. With Derrick, those guys started showing up on campus, like Carroll.

“You know it’s serious when the coach of the national champions spends a day in a plane just for you.”

Of course, serious things tend to happen when you run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash as an eighth grader — Williams now is consistently in the 4.28-4.32 range. And serious visitors are to be expected when you amass 3,360 yards of total offense in your senior season, shredding teams as a rusher (1,123), passer (982), receiver (404) and return man (851) despite an inexperienced offensive line and an uncooperative ankle.

“He had a couple of games this year where he ran for over 100, passed for over 100 and caught for 100. Have you ever heard of such a thing?” Houchens said in awe. “Everyone is recruiting him as a receiver, a slot back, but I’ve never seen a kid who could play so many positions at such an elite level.”

Derrick has. Eight years ago, Williams’ brother, Domonique, was in a similar position as one of the nation’s elite recruits. A stellar running back/quarterback/receiver at Gwynn Park, Domonique picked master recruiter Mack Brown and North Carolina over Tennessee.

But at the end of his freshman season in Chapel Hill, Brown bolted for Texas, UNC restructured its offense around the next blue-chipper du jour (Ronald Curry) and Domonique’s career took an academic and performance plummet that saw him finish his college days as a bit player at North Carolina A&T.;

Thus far, Derrick has proved more adept than Domonique both on and off the field, where he’ll finish high school a semester early with a GPA in the 3.5 range. But Domonique’s experience has led both Derrick and his parents (Dwight and Brinda) to place coaching stability near the top of his recruiting requirements.

That would seem to hurt the chances of Penn State, where Paterno is well past tempting the gallows, and Florida, where the recent firing of Ron Zook stunned the Williams clan.

“That was very hard to take, because on my official visit down there, we sat down with the president and the athletic director, and they assured us that Coach Zook was going to be there,” said Williams. “They said they were going to extend his contract and not to worry. And like two weeks later, he gets fired. It’s hard to trust them, because they lied, plain and simple.”

It wasn’t the first time Williams felt let down by a university.

A year ago, Maryland was right at the top of Williams’ list. After all, he’d grown up rooting for the school at which his father was an assistant athletic director and the first black senior administrator in the department.

But Williams was laid off after 21 years of service at the end of the last academic year. And to Derrick’s amazement, Maryland continued to recruit him.

“That was really [lousy],” said Williams. “With all that going on my dad was still very positive about Maryland. He kept talking about Coach Fridge and saying it could be the best place for me. But me and my brother just couldn’t get with it.

“I thought that Dad was even favoring Maryland a little bit, and I just finally said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to go to a school that’s taking food off my table while I’m providing them with a Thanksgiving feast.’ That was my decision. They were very easy to eliminate, because, obviously, they just don’t get it.”

It’s impossible to tell by talking to Williams who does get it. Between his own experiences and those of his brother and father, Derrick is both guarded and shrewd well beyond his years, immediately sniffing out any questions intended to tip his recruiting hand.

He enjoyed eating alligator at Texas, explaining its tastes like “chewy chicken.”

The VolWalk, where Tennessee players walk through an adoring throng from campus to dressing room before games, was “very cool.”

He has family in Oklahoma.

He has a close friend at Florida (Harvey) and an affinity for the Swamp.

Penn State offered him a scholarship (not legally but unofficially) at 13, when he dazzled coaches at their summer camp, a gesture he never has forgotten.

He spent his nights on each of his five official visits destroying the local talent at video games, crushing everyone from Florida’s Chris Leak to Oklahoma’s Mark Clayton at Madden NFL 2005.

“I left my mark in every state, because I always won,” Williams said, grinning. “I beat everybody. I beat four people in Texas, seven at Penn State, like nine at Oklahoma. That was the most fun part about the visits.”

He has labeled each of those visits “brilliant,” explaining he was given the best player hosts and lavished with information and attention on each trip, which concluded Wednesday with a midweek jaunt to Texas.

“It’s hard, because I’m messing with the top college football coaches in America,” said Williams, who spent the weekend at a banquet in New York honoring the five finalists for the Walter Payton Award (the high school Heisman) before retreating into decision-making seclusion with his family. “We’re talking about Mack Brown, Phil Fulmer, Stoops, Paterno. They are all superb at what they do. Every last one of them knows ways to make things sound good, ways to work on your mom, how to sell you on the family atmosphere of their program.

“I’ve seen it all, man. Now, it’s time for me to step back and try to figure out which one of them really sees me.”

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