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Stewart Mandel Inside College Football

Bobby's back

Ex-Michigan State coach Williams reunites with old boss Saban at LSU

Posted: Thursday April 15, 2004 11:56AM; Updated: Thursday April 15, 2004 1:15PM
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  Bobby Williams
Bobby Williams now has a talented LSU receiving corps under his wing.
Steve Franz/LSU Sports Information

Three months ago Bobby Williams was fired from a losing team for the second time in 13 months. Today, he's going through spring practices with the defending national champions. Not to mention reuniting with an old friend.

When LSU's Nick Saban needed a new receivers coach in January, he turned to Williams, his former Michigan State assistant and successor as head coach, who spent last season with the NFL's Detroit Lions following an ugly ending in 2002 to his tenure with the Spartans.

"Bobby's an outstanding person and as fine an assistant as we had at Michigan State," said Saban. "To be able to hire someone of his caliber, who also has knowledge and experience of your system -- it's almost like you didn't lose a coach because there's so much continuity."

To hear Saban talk about Williams, it's as if the coach's much-chronicled downfall in East Lansing -- marked by several off-field incidents, including quarterback Jeff Smoker's substance-abuse problem, and a series of lopsided losses -- never happened. It's not as easy for Williams to shake. Prior to that fateful last month of the 2002 season, Williams, 45, was a rising star, promoted as Saban's replacement prior to the 2000 Citrus Bowl following a decade on the Spartans' staff.

"I don't know if you ever really get over it," said Williams. "It was a very difficult period during that time. You have to be able to pick up the pieces."

Initially, Williams did so by staying close to home. Marty Mornhinweg, head coach of the nearby Lions, hired him for his first NFL job. Shortly thereafter, however, Mornhinweg was replaced by Steve Mariucci, who, following a 5-11 debut season, dismissed Williams and two other assistants he'd inherited.

Unemployed yet again, Williams headed to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January hoping to latch on with another NFL team. What he didn't expect was to run into Saban -- one of the few college coaches in attendance -- and, upon going over to congratulate his former colleague on the national championship, have Saban gauge his interest in the LSU opening.

Line of defense

While the large majority of attention in Baton Rouge this spring has been focused on the three quarterbacks -- senior Marcus Randall and redshirt freshmen JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn -- vying to replace departed star Matt Mauck, there's an equally important storyline on the other side of the ball.

All-American Chad Lavalais and likely first-round pick Marquise Hill are gone from a dominant defensive line so integral to LSU's 2003 national-title run. The Tigers know they'll be strong at linebacker and in the secondary, where five of seven starters and several experienced reserves return. The key to the whole unit, however, will be how well junior Melvin Oliver, sophomore Kirston Pittman and juco transfer Claude Wroten develop alongside returning D-line standouts Marcus Spears and Kyle Williams.

"We've got a ways to go," Saban said. "I don't know that [the D-line] is as strong as it was a year ago. Hopefully we'll have the young guys step up to the challenge."

As for the great QB debate, Saban said it's too early to determine a starter, but that Randall is the "heir apparent" because he started six games as a sophomore, and that he doesn't want to rush Russell or Flynn's development.

-- Stewart Mandel

"It hadn't really crossed my mind about going back to college," Williams said. "If I was going to go back, why not with Nick? Our relationship has always been very solid."

Such statements fly in the face of a perception within the coaching profession -- confirmed in a 2001 Sports Illustrated survey of college assistants -- that the gruff Saban is an unpleasant boss. That reputation began circulating after none of his Michigan State assistants followed him to Baton Rouge and his first defensive coordinator at LSU, John Thompson, left after a month. Four assistants from last year's title team left this offseason, though three landed what were clearly better opportunities.

Williams insists he and Saban worked together harmoniously for five seasons at Michigan State, where Williams' recruiting abilities helped Saban resurrect the Spartans from the depths of mediocrity to a 10-win campaign his final year. At LSU, Williams enters an entirely different situation: a program already on top, one that's having little trouble getting into the homes of the nation's elite recruits right now.

He's also entered a largely foreign culture after spending his entire coaching career in the Midwest. "My first function was the LSU recruiting bash [in February], where we announced the players we signed," said Williams. "There were over 5,000 people there. I'd never had anything like that in the Big Ten. I'd never even heard of anything like that."

Fanaticism isn't the only difference in the South. "The food is awesome," Williams said of Louisiana's famed Cajun cuisine. "And I can't say enough about the weather. The first couple times I talked to Nick on the phone [from Michigan], I was shoveling snow, he was walking around in shorts."

Besides sunshine and etouffee, Williams found another welcoming gift awaiting him in Baton Rouge: one of the nation's most talented, albeit young, receiving corps. Though junior Skyler Green is the Tigers' only experienced returning receiver, sophomores Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis were among the most sought-after recruits in the country at their position and have shown such abilities in spring practices. Redshirt freshman Amp Hill, who is still recovering from knee surgery, and incoming freshmen Early Doucet and Xavier Carter are similarly talented.

If Williams can get the group to perform at its expected level, he'll be one step closer to resurrecting what was once a career on the fast track.

"I've never really talked to him about [the Michigan State situation], but he doesn't seem any different to me," Saban said. "Unfortunately, what we learn as assistant coaches doesn't always prepare us to be head coaches. I think if he ever gets the opportunity to do it again, he'll be able to do just fine."

Putting the 'O' in Ron

Florida fans have been grumbling for two years about coach Ron Zook's drab offense (relative to predecessor Steve Spurrier's). If last weekend's Orange and Blue game was any indication, they'll be far more pleased this fall.

Feasting on a young Gators secondary, quarterback Chris Leak went 15-of-28 for 335 yards -- more than in any game last season -- and two touchdowns, with receivers Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, Jemalle Cornelius and Reggie Lewis and tight end David Kenner all flashing big-play potential. Meanwhile, running back Ciatrick Fason gained 141 yards on 16 carries.

If such production carries over into the fall, much of the credit will likely go to new offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, who moved up when quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher was stripped of coordinator duties. It's probably more a case of the aforementioned players growing up. All of them, besides Fason, are entering just their second year in the program.

Freshmen take over Blacksburg

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It's been an eventful spring at Virginia Tech. Three players, including quarterback Marcus Vick, are about to stand trial for allegedly providing alcohol to minors. Expected starting tailback Cedric Humes broke his leg in the first scrimmage. And oh yeah, did we mention the Hokies, entering their first season in the ACC, must replace 13 starters from a team that lost four of its last five games in 2003?

On the bright side, spring has served as a coming-out party for several promising freshmen who could play key roles this fall. Most intriguing is celebrated recruit George Bell, who enrolled in January and was rated the nation's sixth-best running back last season according to TheInsiders.com. Originally, coaches planned to use the 5-foot-11, 225 pound bruiser at fullback but following Humes' injury moved Bell to tailback, where he could be a more viable every-down option than junior scatback Mike Imoh.

Meanwhile at receiver, two early enrollees from prep schools, 6-3 Justin Harper (Hargrave Military) and 6-1 Josh Morgan (Fork Union), have each made several big catches in scrimmages, with Harper drawing comparisons to departed standout Ernest Wilford. On defense, redshirt freshman Xavier Adibi, younger brother of former all-conference defensive end Nathaniel, has already been penciled in as a starting inside linebacker, while classmates Vince Hall (linebacker) and Chris Ellis (defensive end) aren't far behind.

Heisman spectator

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jason White continues to be held out of Oklahoma's contact drills and scrimmages this spring, mostly as a precautionary measure. Of the three injuries he's recuperating from -- a sprained right hand suffered in the Big 12 title game, a broken toe from the Sugar Bowl and offseason knee surgery -- only the toe hasn't fully healed.

Even without him, though, the Sooners' passing game has looked much like it did during the 2003 regular season. In the team's last scrimmage, junior quarterback Paul Thompson was 20-of-28 for 184 yards and a touchdown, while redshirt freshman Tommy Grady threw for 202 yards on 16 of 25 completions. Neither threw a pick.

Worth noting

Miami's breakout star of the spring has been redshirt freshman defensive tackle Teraz McCray, the 'Canes' last scholarship recipient a year ago who's been wreaking havoc on the offensive line. ... Wisconsin's quarterback job is sophomore John Stocco's to lose after an impressive 12-of-18, 243-yard performance in the Badgers' spring game. Senior Matt Schabert, the hero of Wisconsin's dramatic win over Ohio State last season when he relieved the injured Jim Sorgi, has fallen to No. 3 on the depth chart. ... Arizona State redshirt freshman Rudy Burgess wowed coaches and onlookers at the Sun Devils' most recent scrimmage by breaking several long punt returns. He's in the mix at receiver as well. ... Former Auburn running back Brandon Jacobs has transferred to I-AA Southern Illinois, where he'll be eligible immediately. The senior faces stiff competition for carries, however. Former Minnesota tailback Terry Jackson, a 1,317-yard rusher for the Gophers in 2002, has also joined the Salukis. ... Athletic redshirt freshman Bret Meyer has overtaken two quarterbacks who started last year, sophomore Austin Flynn and senior Chris Love, atop Iowa State's depth chart. ... The Pac-10, which previously replaced the Silicon Valley Classic with the Emerald Bowl (formerly named the San Francisco Bowl) as its sixth bowl partner, is close to rejoining with the San Jose game for a seventh tie-in.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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