He was a junior varsity quarterback waiting for the day he'd be handed the keys to the offense at fabled Permian High in Odessa, Texas. Everyone in town knew Roy Williams. At 12, he'd run wild from the tailback position, leading his little Bengals to Odessa's Pop Warner championship. His older brother, Lloyd Hill, had been a standout receiver on Permian's 1989 state championship team. Soon it would be Roy's turn to star at the high school, and he'd be running the whole show. Until the plan changed, that is, four games into his sophomore season, in 1997. Seeking more offense, the Permian coaches elevated Roy to the varsity and moved him to wide receiver.
Footballs came his way on Friday nights, and the field opened up in front of him like a vast meadow. Defenders grasped at his feet and came up with air. "It seemed like every time I touched the ball I could make a big play," says Williams. "They throw it to me, all I have to do is make one guy miss and then go the rest of the way untouched. Pretty easy, every time. I could be the big man on campus out there."
He still is, except the campus is bigger now. Williams is a senior at Texas, a sculpted 6'3�", 215-pounder with Velcro mitts. He's the prime weapon for the 3-1 Long-horns, who routed Tulane 63-18 last Saturday and are looking to knock off Kansas State this weekend at Memorial Stadium in Austin, and then steam into Dallas on Oct. 11 and end their infuriating three-game losing streak to top-ranked Oklahoma. "He is a receiver who has constantly changed the direction of games," says Texas coach Mack Brown. "He takes over from out there."
Williams isn't alone. The receiver as every-play threat is the hallmark of college football as it is played in 2003. The game is dominated by Generation Wideout, breathtaking athletes who in another era might have been running backs or linebackers but who have embraced the trend and run with it, much as they do in a broken field after a catch. "I've done high school football camps all across the country," says Arizona wide receivers coach Mose Rison, a former NFL assistant. "Everybody wants to play wide receiver. If they can't play quarterback—the real glamour position—they want to go out and catch the football."
Through the '70s and '80s, college football was dominated by running backs. All but one of the Heismans awarded from 1973 to '85 went to backs. That changed—slowly at first but more recently with the speed of a broadband MP3 download. In the 17 years since Bo Jackson won the '85 Heisman, the sport has moved from the ground to the air, and only five running backs have taken home the statue. The new stars are players like Williams—guys who combine a small forward's body with a shortstop's athleticism and a linebacker's attitude. How they came to be the go-to guys on the best teams is a story of football evolution.
In 1975, when Oklahoma's wishbone ruled college football, teams averaged an alltime high of 51.9 rushing plays per game and only 18.4 passes. Defenses played soft pass coverages, and says John Robinson, who coached USC at the time and is now at UNLV, "receivers were often medium-speed kids who could just catch the ball." In response coaches began moving their best players to defense and designing their schemes to stop the run. When Jimmy Johnson arrived at Miami, in 1984, he upped the ante, making his defense the fastest and most aggressive in the country by turning linebackers into superfast linemen and defensive backs into quick, punishing linebackers. Defensive innovators such as Bob Stoops at Kansas State (1989-95) and then Florida (1996-98) committed to the press defense, putting as many as nine defenders in the box to stop the run. "We made a decision to take away the run, pressure the passer and put our best athletes outside," said Stoops early in his Oklahoma tenure. Every national champion from 1990 to 2002 followed the run-stopping recipe.
The only sensible response was to pass the football. Beginning in the mid-'90s various forms of the spread offense emerged, with four-and five-receiver packages. Last season college teams ran just 39.5 times per game—the lowest since the NCAA began keeping those stats in 1937—and passed 31.1 times, just short of the record of 31.6, set in 2001. This year rushes are down to 39.1 per game, and passes are being thrown at a record rate of 31.9 per game. "The way defenses are playing, with a lot of blitzes and a lot of receivers in one-on-one situations," says Wisconsin wideouts coach Henry Mason, "the only way to move the football is to get it down the field to the wide receivers." Adds UNLV assistant Bruce Snyder, "You can't win a championship without a guy who can make clutch catches. The receiver now changes the scoreboard more than any other position."
The new wideouts walk in the footprints of Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens. But most of all they idolize the man who made the wideout a star. " Randy Moss set the trend," says Andre Johnson, the former Miami receiver who went third overall, to Houston, in the 2003 draft. "When he came into the league there was no one like him."
Today's �berwideout must have "speed and the ability to run after he catches the ball," says Louisville offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. He must also be "big and physical, to give smaller, quicker corners trouble," says Georgia coach Mark Richt. He has to be able "to beat a bump-and-run," says Brown. There's more. Star receivers are creative and spontaneous, inventing plays on the fly in response to defenses' aggression. "I don't want to say you're playing sandlot football," says Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott, "but there are a lot of reads and a lot of little feel routes and a lot of slants and little hot throws. That's what the game has changed to." Receivers aren't just players but performers, bringing NBA attitude to the field. Says Texas senior B.J. Johnson, a solid complement to Williams, "I love the way Michael Irvin used to make a big catch and signal first down."
Williams has all these skills in abundance. In high school he high-jumped seven feet, long-jumped 25'6" and ran the 100 meters in 10.30 (the last two wind-aided), each good enough to earn him a track scholarship and point him toward the Olympics. Teammates and coaches who've watched him for four years have seen countless mind-boggling plays. Last year against North Carolina he ran a streak route down the sideline, reached back for an underthrown pass and caught it behind his helmet without turning around. (He was whistled out-of-bounds on the catch.) "I saw him make a catch earlier this year in which the ball hit his hands and fell toward the ground," says Texas receivers coach Darryl Drake. "Before it hits the ground, he just bends over and snatches it up into his chest and rolls over sideways. Impossible. That's a drop, period. And he caught it."