Instincts and intangibles key to VT RB Williams' success

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

It’s almost as if he doesn’t even need a playbook.

Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams methodically scans the field from left to right before each play. He’s not looking at the defenders gunning for him. He’s looking at the gaps between them. It’s not something he’s learned from any of his coaches at any level.

There are some things you just can’t teach.

“I coach our guys on footwork, timing with the quarterback, taking the handoff, and once they have the ball in their arms, I don’t coach them after that,” said Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite. “I’ve never coached a running back with the ball in his arm after he touches the football. If I’m sitting there telling him, ‘I think you should run here,’ or ‘I think you should run there,’ all I’m doing is screwing that kid up. … Ryan, he sees things the naked eye can’t see from the stands, or the sideline, or up in the press box.”

Williams, though, is impossible to miss.

If he’s not breaking tackles, Williams is making defenders miss with his razzle-dazzle, flashy style. It’s a style that reflects his outgoing personality. He’s the proud owner of nearly 100 pairs of Nike sneakers, including old-school Air Jordans and Air Force Ones. He has 15 tattoos, his favorite being the one on his right forearm that reads “#34 Lil’ Sweetness" in honor of the late Walter Payton. It’s why he wears No. 34, but make no mistake, Williams is his own person, and he’s making a name for himself quickly.

“I have the most confidence in myself,” he said. “I really do believe in what I’m capable of doing. I knew that I could play on this level. I didn’t think I would get off to as good of a start as I did, but as far as being able to perform and help this team succeed, I knew I was able to do that.”

Williams enters Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech ranked No. 6 in the country with 122.33 rushing yards per game. He’s on pace for a 1,000-yard season and needs just three more touchdowns to break the record for most touchdowns in a season by a freshman tailback, set last year by Darren Evans with 11. Williams, a redshirt freshman, has already had four 100-yard rushing games.

“He’s a big-time back,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. “The defensive coaches, when he was over there on the scout team, would come in about every day after practice talking about how Ryan Williams was the best back they’ve faced. He was good last year.”

Last year, though, Williams struggled with some of the protections and blocking responsibilities. As a pure runner, he was ready. As a complete back, he wasn’t. This year, he was thrust into the starting role at the expense of the injured Evans -- a role he said he was "too eager" for. For the second straight year, Virginia Tech has seamlessly replaced injured star running backs. Last year Evans took over for injured starter Kenny Lewis Jr. and developed into a 1,000-yard rusher and had a record-setting season. This year, Williams has taken over for the injured Evans, and he’s on track to do the same.

Williams currently has 734 yards and needs 531 more to tie Evans' record for most rushing yards in a season by a freshman tailback. He has already tied Evans for the most 100-yard rushing performances in a season by a freshman tailback with four.

"I really don't pay attention to it," Williams said. "I don't pay attention to it at all. I just go out there and try my best every game and hopefully the results will be good."

So far they've been good enough to work his name into a few Heisman conversations. Williams has broken 45 tackles this season on 126 carries. Twice this year he’s broken 11 tackles in a game. That’s according to the coaching staff’s weekly breakdowns of the game film.

“No. 1 he has great vision,” said Hite. “He can see the holes. He also has strength and he has excellent speed. That’s the thing that separates him from everybody else right now. He can run over you, he can run around you, and his feet, every time there’s contact made on his body, his feet never stop.”

And that's why he's been given the green light to keep on going whichever direction they might take him.