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February 18, 2009Note: This article appears in the latest special recruiting issue of Blue White Illustrated, which you can read FREE now at BlueWhiteOnline.com!
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Mike McQueary isn't sure that anyone will ever fully understand.
Penn State's wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator is talking about former Nittany Lions receiver Derrick Williams and his impact on the program he's loved for so long.
As time rolls by, fans and followers of the Penn State program can point to a pass here or there, a moment in time in which a season was defined.
To some, Derrick Williams didn't live up to his potential as the No. 1 recruit in the country coming out of high school.
But McQueary, who spent four years as his position coach, knows better. He hopes that someday everyone will realize it wasn't all about receptions or yards, it was more about character and putting Penn State in the best possible position to win.
Williams will tell you he is responsible for the arrival of players such as Aaron Maybin, Navorro Bowman and A.J. Wallace, also incoming recruits Devon Smith, Derrick Thomas and others.
"It's huge," McQueary said. "One of the things we say all the time in our program is that our current kids are our best recruiters. Derrick, after he signed and came to Penn State early, he was very instrumental in that class and in the next recruiting class we had a huge year in Maryland."
All of that is attributed to Williams and his ability to reach out to potential recruits, be a bridge between the school and its coaches and the recruit.
It didn't hurt that as a true freshman Williams was a budding college football star. Though his 2005 season ended with a broken arm at Michigan, Williams, the total package, the player, the mentor, the character guy, means more to Penn State over the last four years and probably the next four, than anyone coming or going.
If you don't think Williams will still have an impact as he grinds out an NFL career next fall, look no further than the lightning fast, 5-foot-8 Smith.
"I've been wanting to go to Penn State since ninth grade when Derrick Williams went there," Smith told the Philadelphia Daily News.
Smith had firsthand experience in dealing with Williams, first as a player for Eleanor Roosevelt High School, then after transferring to West Lake.
"Once I went up there for my official visit on Jan. 16, I thought, 'This is the place for me,'" Smith told the paper.
The impact goes back to the class after Williams arrived on Penn State's campus.
Players such as linebacker Navorro Bowman, defensive end Aaron Maybin, cornerback A.J. Wallace all followed.
Bowman and Wallace will return in 2009, while Maybin has decided the NFL is the place for him and left early.
If a player were to be measured in only stats, wouldn't a lot of what fans see these days in sports be diminished?
Isn't character and willingness to do what it takes off the playing surface equal to any amount of touchdowns or yards gained?
Character and leadership off the Beaver Stadium grass have defined Derrick Williams. It did so when he got to Penn State, it does today and because of his endless pursuit of potential recruits, it will four years from now.
"I wanted to win and these guys had talent that I had seen with my own two eyes. They were from the same area. I had coaches telling me that this guy would help out. I wanted to win and I wanted the kids to see what I saw in the program when I committed," Williams said.
"I know that once someone comes on their visit and they get around the players and the Penn State family they're going to love it just as much as I did when I was being recruited and was around the guys."
"Derrick was a pretty big factor for a lot of the guys," Maybin said. "We all knew each other, some of us played against each other so we already established a relationship before playing together."
A closer look and you can see the steps that Williams took to become the leader he ultimately was at Penn State.
It started by arriving at Penn State, it carried over to giving back to his hometown of Greenbelt, Md., and it led to establishing relationships with recruits upon visits.
"Derrick has been active in our school for so many things," said Williams' former high school coach at Roosevelt, Rick Houchens. "The guys coming out want to live up to that guy; that's their role model. He was always coming back and teaching the guys things about routes or technique."
On National Letter of Intent Day last week, Derrick Thomas, Sean Stanley and Devon Smith all signed to follow in Williams' footsteps.
Just imagine what might have been had Williams followed his family's initial wishes.
"Nobody in my family, nobody anywhere wanted me to come to Penn State. They just didn't think Penn State knew how to use me," Williams said. "They said they didn't know what to do with a player like me. With me in high school and me in college, the only thing that mattered to me was winning."
Williams led his Nittany Lions to 40 wins, two Big Ten titles, two BCS berths, four bowl games. Penn State finished in the Top 10 his freshman and senior years, a far cry from the doom and gloom in the early part of the decade.
Before his senior year he was named a captain, which in some sense which was given to him just as much for what he did off the field as a leader as he did on.
In Joe Paterno's darkest days early in the decade, the thought that a player like Williams would come along and get others to follow was something of a dream. When it became reality, things turned around for the veteran coach, too. He's received two extensions since just before the 2004 season.
"As I said several years ago, when Derrick was in high school and people were questioning where the program was going, I said, 'We're so close to being a good football team; we just need a couple of people.' And Derrick came to the front and was one of them. He came in here and brought some other people with him, I think, who felt if he had that kind of confidence in the program then there's got to be something up there that's good," Paterno said last season.
"I think he's had a tremendous impact. When he practices, he carries people with him on the practice field. He goes out there, works hard and does everything well. He can just about do anything you want him to do on the football field.
"If I want to make him a corner, he might be as good a corner as there is around. He is just a great athlete and a great football player."
Williams said when players arrived on campus for visits he would make sure to exchange numbers. More times than not it was the recruit who called Williams.
"They kept me in the loop pretty much. They'll tell me about their visits and then I would tell them about my visit to the same program. We just talked normal. It wouldn't be a pitch. I'm not calling you to tell you to go to Penn State," Williams said. "If we had a bond when you came up here to visit, most likely you're calling me and I'll be listening."
Williams said he told potential recruits that "a million kids would love to be in your position now. You have to think about how many high school kids there are in the country and you're the one getting recruited. Take advantage of it, go on all your visits. If you need someone to talk to, I've been through it all."
After meeting or talking to potential recruits the first phone call Williams would make was to McQueary to let him know how things were going.
Williams was the bridge between recruit and program, and recruit and coaches. He was the voice Penn State needed to turn its fortunes around player by player.
"He would keep us updated and obviously you don't want to know too much about what's going on or what's being said," McQueary said. "There's also a general trust there between a young man who is in your program and someone that maybe has confided in him and is looking at your program. Obviously, you don't want to break down those walls and trust you have."
McQueary said he would be stunned if Williams didn't return to Penn State as much as a potential NFL career allows and be involved much like a Lavar Arrington is today.
"The only thing I want people to remember me for is the hard work I put in," Williams said. "I did everything I could do. I think I was a big-time leader. With all the expectations I think I handled everything great. I did all I could do.
"Me coming to Penn State, the only thing I could think of is that I wanted to turn the program around and leave my mark that way. I think that happened."
It did, player by player. Four years ago, maybe even eight years later.
Don't miss this feature story and others like it each issue!
Here's a look at this special recruiting issue's table of contents:
4 - Mailbag
5--6 - Phil's corner
8-10 - Derrick Williams Exclusive
11-30 - Special Recruiting Pull Out Section
~ Sean Fitz, Phil Grosz and Nate Bauer break down the entire Nittany Lions' class of 2009 with player-by-player bios and analysis for all 27 of the newest commitments!
31 - Men's basketball
33 - Women's basketball
34-35 - Wrestling
Plus, as always, don't miss Varsity Views, Scorecard and The Tail End!
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