FAYETTEVILLE — Terrell Williams has spent most of his Arkansas career as a backup, logging time on special teams and filling in on defense when needed.
The Tulsa, Okla., native has been pushed into a different role, though, because of injuries as Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 in SEC) prepares to play Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) in Little Rock on Saturday. The senior is now the Razorbacks’ most experienced linebacker.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s bittersweet,” Williams said earlier this month, pointing to the season-ending injuries to linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright that led him to new duties. “I’m just trying to give experience and wisdom to the young guys and help them learn as fast as possible and as much as possible.”
Williams also became the third Arkansas player to start at middle linebacker this season during the 49-7 win at Kentucky on Oct. 13. He’ll continue to be counted on Saturday, when the Razorbacks return from their bye week to play the Rebels.
It will be Williams’ fifth-straight start and second at middle linebacker. His performance the rest of the way could play a big factor in how much improvement Arkansas continues to make defensively. It’s a big responsibility for a player who had logged 67 tackles – most of which came on special teams – his first three years.
Coach John L. Smith said Williams has no other choice but to be ready now at a position also leaning on newcomers like A.J. Turner and Otha Peters.
“He has to be the leader, the guy that everybody looks to,” Smith said. “So start being more vocal and get everybody lined up. That’s part of your responsibility now. It’s not just lining yourself up right. It’s making sure you can get everybody else lined up right as well. You’re putting a pressure on him in that regard and he’ll respond.”
Williams has done well so far, equaling Turner for the team-high in tackles (five) during the 49-7 win against Kentucky. It came a week after Williams equaled his career high with 12 tackles in the 24-7 win at Auburn, stepping into the leadership role at linebacker on the fly after Highsmith left the game in the first quarter.
He moved from weakside to middle linebacker the next week and said the transition has been pretty smooth after playing both spots throughout his career. Williams ranks fourth on the team in tackles and has 35 of his 37 stops during four starts.
“I think the one thing I saw is him truly understanding his time is now,” linebackers coach Taver Johnson said. “He’s got to do everything now. There is no waiting. It happens now. So he’s got to take advantage of it. He really has tried to do that.”
Williams admittedly had to practice a little patience waiting for the opportunity.
He figured to be a bigger part of the linebacker equation after the 2011 season, when starters Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson graduated. But Arkansas made the pre-spring decision to move Wright from defensive end to linebacker and team him with Highsmith, pushing Williams back down the depth chart.
Williams said it wasn’t easy to swallow, but he continued to work in his role as a reserve. Wright’s move to linebacker didn’t pan out because of the senior’s shoulder injury that began to limit him early in preseason camp. So Williams finally stepped into the starting spot against Rutgers and logged 12 tackles in Arkansas’ loss.
“He’s done a nice job,” Johnson said. “Obviously we expect more because he is the lone veteran in the room on this team now. That’s a good thing. He has a good attitude and he’s a good kid to be around.”
Teammates also have noticed Williams’ growth the past few weeks as he embraces his role as leader of the linebackers because of the injuries.
“He understands that he has to work with some younger guys within the group,” Arkansas defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. “Coming from having to be behind Alonzo and Tank and now being the starting guy, naturally you understand that I am at the head of the pack and I have to lead by example. I think he’s doing a great job with that. Also with his play - he is playing very good football right now.”
Arkansas hopes it continues down the stretch as tougher tests come for a defense that believes it is gaining momentum after two solid outings.
Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said the Razorbacks must keep getting contributions from everyone, but said “we need him” in reference to Williams.
Williams said he plans to come through in his new role the rest of the season.
“I am just trying to stay focused and take advantage of the opportunity that has been there for me,” Williams said. “I have been able to show the talent of what I can do, continue to get better throughout the season and stay humble.”