AUBURN, Ala. -- D’haquille Williams did not disappoint in his much-anticipated debut on Saturday. The man now known simply as “Duke” caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his first-ever SEC game.
It was the most yards receiving by an Auburn player since Darvin Adams (217) in the 2010 SEC championship game and the most ever by a Tiger in his first game.
“Honestly, I didn’t come in thinking I was going to have a big game like that,” Williams said. “I just kept catching the ball, catching the ball and making plays. As the game went on, the ball kept coming so I just had to make a play for my team.”
The junior-college transfer was the only one surprised by his performance. The coaches knew they had something special before he ever stepped foot on campus.
In his signing day press conference, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Williams will have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat. Before that, during the week of the BCS title game, wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said Williams could have a Jameis Winston-type impact on the program. More recently, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told ESPN’s Travis Haney that he had a “Dez Bryant,” referring to his star newcomer.
Even the high school coaches who had seen the team practice during fall camp were raving about the 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver. One coach said that he was on another level from Sammie Coates, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, while another said that this will likely be his only season at Auburn because he’ll be playing on Sundays next year.
High praise for a kid who had yet to catch a pass, but Williams delivered on those expectations Saturday in Auburn's 45-21 win over Arkansas.
“Duke had a great performance, but we knew that was coming,” Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We expected that. We expect big things out of him.”
“This was nothing surprising,” added quarterback Jeremy Johnson. “That’s what we expect out of him. Duke is amazing. He’s an NFL-type player.”
The fans must have known it was coming, too. They were chanting Duke’s name during warmups, and that carried over to the game when Williams made his first catch. The stadium just about erupted when he caught his second pass and nearly took it to the house. The play gained 62 yards, and the casual observer might have thought they were booing him with the collective “Duuuuuke” heard after the play.
"It just made me feel like they love me,” Williams told reporters after the game. “I never thought I'd have a chant like that.
“When they chanted that, I caught the chills. My heart just started beating faster. I'm just like, there's no way 90,000 just chanted my name. I ran to the sidelines and just had to take a seat, put a towel on my head and start thinking, 'It's really here. Everything I worked for.'”
Four plays later, Williams finished the drive with an 18-yard touchdown grab. He caught a quick slant over the middle and carried his defender across the goal line for the score, his first as an Auburn Tiger.
After the game, Malzahn praised the newcomer’s efforts.
“He attacks the ball, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “He can do some things with it after he catches the ball, too. We had a plan, if they played us a certain way, we’d attack them with him in the middle of the field. That’s kind of what happened, and he did a good job executing.”
It was certainly a debut to remember for Williams.
“This had to be the best feeling of my life,” he said after the game.