Tracking down the deep ball
P.J. Williams has a knack for getting to everything thrown his way — well, almost everything. The one that Williams wasn’t able to track down, tight end Walter Sharp was, for the game-winning touchdown to cap Mary Hardin-Baylor’s stunning 17-point comeback over Mount Union in last Saturday’s national semifinal win.
“I was just a couple of inches away,” Williams, a junior said earlier this week. “When (quarterback Josh Welch) threw it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get to it. (Walter) made a great catch. It was like it all happened in slow motion.”
Williams is usually the target on a play like that, and chances are he’ll need to get under a few passes for the Crusaders to match high-scoring Linfield in the Stagg Bowl on Saturday. Mary Hardin-Baylor may get most of its yardage from its multi-faceted rushing attack, but is capable of throwing the football deep when needed. Williams is averaging 20 yards per catch on his team-high 36 receptions this season and has scored 10 touchdowns (nine receiving, one on a punt return).
The reason that the football usually ends up in Williams hands once it’s in the air has something to do with his previous sport of choice. The 27-year-old native of Rockdale, Texas, just 50 miles away from UMHB, spent six seasons playing professional baseball, in the Seattle Mariners’ organization against current big leaguers like Juan Pierre and Corey Patterson, as well as in the independent Atlantic League, before re-enrolling in school. He was best known for his speed (Williams was a state champion hurdler in high school) and his defensive ability but a serious of injuries, including a broken hand and separated shoulder, slowed down his progress to the major leagues.
Case in point was the 2000 season in which Williams followed up a .299 campaign the year before by hitting .291 for the Lancaster Jethawks of the Class A California League, but was sidelined for two-thirds of the season. He was elected an All-Star in 2002, but decided not long after to give up the sport and re-enroll in school. Williams had been selected in the MLB draft out of Blinn Junior College and still had three years of eligibility remaining.
“I always felt that if I got a shot, I could have played in the majors someday,” Williams said. “I had the ability and the tools, but things never happened in the right place at the right time for me. I don’t regret it at all though because right now, I’m playing for a national championship.”
Williams may have had one of his best career days in the national quarterfinal rout of Washington and Jefferson, catching six passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. He also blocked a field goal and returned a punt 57 yards for the game’s opening score. His ability to move quicker than the action and sense both how and where things will develop is something that he brought from baseball to adapt to this sport.
“He can track the football like no one I’ve seen,” said Mary Hardin-Baylor offensive coordinator Matt Robinson. “It must have come from catching all those fly balls.”
It’s easy for opponents to be deceived, tricked into thinking they can cheat their safeties up, since the Crusaders’ run/pass play ratio is greater than three to one. But Williams can catch them off guard.
“I can use my speed to get past the defensive backs,” Williams said. “I’m more of a deep threat, more of a leader with my play on the field than in the huddle. We do run the ball quite a bit, but we will throw it deep when we get the chance. I get my share of plays.”
Williams should be able to calm his teammates down if they get too excited about the glare of the national spotlight. They may joke about his age, but they listen to a man with the experience of having played before bigger crowds and in a championship atmosphere.
“They may call me ‘Grandpa’ or ‘Old Man’ sometimes,” Williams said, “but it’s all serious once we’re on the field.”