LINCOLN — Nebraska intended to play Kevin Williams against Southern Mississippi, and the defensive tackle was told as much before the Huskers' season-opening football game.
It didn't work out that way, for various reasons, but Williams had to go from frustrated to focused in a hurry with UCLA on deck.
“Of course I'm always ready to go,” Williams said. “This is the game I love. I take a lot of pride in this game. It just added fuel to the fire for me to go this past week.”
Seven days later, the redshirt freshman played 42 snaps against the Bruins in what might have been just a prelude to how the rest of this season might go for the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder from Holland, Ohio.
In short, there likely won't be many more games where Williams watches and wonders about when his time will come.
Nebraska already was struggling to find depth on its line before defensive tackle Chase Rome left the team this week. That should only crank up the requirement that Williams, true freshman Aaron Curry and redshirt freshman Todd Peat help senior Baker Steinkuhler and junior Thad Randle at the tackle spots.
And Williams understood that need even before the Rome story developed, especially with Randle continuing to fight some nagging health issues.
“I definitely see that,” Williams said. “We've been very injury-prone in the past. So I think it's important that we can get me and Aaron Curry in there a lot, too, to get some experience because there might be a need in the future.”
Williams has been part of those injury troubles in the past 18 months.
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After an early arrival at NU, Williams went through spring practice in 2011 and was poised to possibly play last season as a true freshman. He then went down with a knee injury that would linger all the way into preseason practice last month.
Because Williams had little previous experience with injuries, the setback — and accompanying long road back — took a mental toll as much as a physical one.
“It was the hardest thing I've ever been through in my life,” he said. “There were times when I felt like it was never going to happen. I was down in the dumps.
“I'd talk to my mom every night and say, ‘I don't know what to do. It's killing me. I don't know if I'll ever be back.' She told me to hang in there, pray every night, and I did that. It got better and better, and here I am now.”
His mother, Lisa, traveled to Pasadena and saw her son make his debut last Saturday night. Williams was credited with just an assisted tackle, but NU head coach Bo Pelini and line coach Rick Kaczenski said he showed well.
“I thought for his first big go he did some good things,” Pelini said. “He got off blocks and was pretty active. He didn't transition into his pass rush as well, but that happens a lot to a young guy.”
Kaczenski said Williams had a “couple mistakes alignment-wise,” but nothing too costly. But he offers the NU defensive interior some quickness, Kaczenski said, and has the ability to get off blocks and get out of bad positions.
“There's a couple snaps that we saw on tape where he made plays,” Kaczenski said. “He had his gap responsibility, and then when it was time to go make a play he pulled the trigger. That's nice to see in a young guy.”
Kaczenski planned to use Williams against Southern Miss, but took a little longer than expected with some other experimentation. When he had him ready to go late, Nebraska put together an offensive series that killed what was left of the clock.
So even though UCLA was his first taste of game action, Williams said he still graded himself harshly and saw plenty to clean up this week.
That comes with wanting to hold himself to a high standard. One of the reasons he came to Nebraska was because of Outland and Lombardi winner Ndamukong Suh, who was having his monster 2009 season when the Huskers first started recruiting Williams.
Williams said the success of Suh is “what first drew my attention” to Nebraska and helped keep it as he was also considering Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Said Williams: “I was like, ‘Man, this guy's great. What did they do to develop him?' I was like, ‘Whatever they could do with him, hopefully they can do with me here.'”
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