It's that bittersweet portion of the year when fans bid farewell to not just the close of football season, but also to the seniors who are wrapping up their college careers. Tennessee will say farewell to 20 seniors on Saturday afternoon who will try to exit Neyland Stadium for the last time with a win over Vanderbilt.
One of those who will be putting on the home Orange for the final time in Neyland is defensive tackle Dan Williams, who has traveled a circuitous path during his five years on 'The Hill.'
Williams spent his first season in Knoxville as a redshirt offensive tackle, and as a recruit, came in more lightly regarded than his high school teammate from Memphis East, Malcolm Rawls.
Five years of hard work, massive weight loss, a position switch and a coaching change have changed things dramatically for Williams. An overweight 'project' as a freshman, he's leaving Knoxville as a likely first-round draft pick and one of the top defensive tackles in the nation.
That kind of career arc is the type of thing that can often lead to some serious ego-inflation. If nothing else however, Williams has always been grounded and humble, and as he leaves Knoxville with an exceedingly bright future, he's maintaining the same 'aw shucks, yes-sir' attitude that he came in with.
"I think about how far I've come, especially the weight part. I always remind myself that I never want to go back through that again. I see that I've developed into a better player since I've been here," Williams says of his progress. "I've been through a coaching change, and I think that helped me. I just think my time here at Tennessee is going to help me later on in life going through the things I've went through."
As he goes running onto the field for the last time as a player this weekend, Williams will be thinking the same thought that just about everyone in his situation has over the years, 'where did the time go?'
"It feels like time's gone by fast. I can remember the first time I ran through the ‘T' when we played UAB in '05. It was an exciting feeling. That was one of the reasons I came to Tennessee, the tradition of running through the 'T.' It's an unbelievable feeling once you finally run through it, the first time you see 100,000 fans stand up, I just went crazy," Williams recalled.
"Over the years its always been fun playing in Neyland Stadium. I have some great memories here. I know I'll be kind of sad when Saturday comes. I really have enjoyed my time here."
One of the not-so-great memories that Williams and other fifth-year seniors share is of being on the sidelines as Vanderbilt ended a 23 year winless streak against Tennessee in 2005.
That now infamous loss cemented a losing season for the Vols and kept them out of a bowl game for the first time in 17 years.
Williams remembers the feeling of disappointment well, and with Vandy once again coming in as a potential spoiler, he's not about to let his current teammates let their guard down. Not with the Vols attempting to start a new bowl streak after sitting home for the holidays once again last season.
"I definitely remember it. Jay Cutler threw a touchdown pass to Earl Bennett at the end. I don't want that to happen. I remember it like it was yesterday," Williams said of the defeat. "That kept us from a bowl game and kept us home at Christmas. I definitely don't want that to happen. I know Vanderbilt's going to come in here and they're going to play us hard. They always play us tough.
"That memory (from '05) is in the back of my head, so I'm going to make sure guys are ready to play. I don't want my last home game to be a loss."
Williams has plenty that he could be distracted by at the moment. After all, not many players go from afterthought to likely first-rounder in the course of their college careers. The opportunities and potential distractions that come with that designation don't necessarily wait for the college season to conclude before intruding, and definitely include the sort of elements that could get the attention of a 22-year old. After all, who wouldn't like to daydream about being a millionaire in a few months?
Williams' recent inclusion on Mel Kiper Jr.'s widely read ‘Big-Board,' as the No. 21 overall available prospect in the upcoming NFL draft, has only increased the likelihood that some very good days are ahead of him in the professional ranks. But he can wait.
"Some of the guys on the team joke with me about that, but I don't get too much into that. I'm just here to help us win games," Williams said when asked how much attention he paid to his rising draft stock.
"If my play right now helps me later on, that's great. I'll probably think about that more after a bowl game, but if I end up with zero tackles and we beat Vanderbilt, that's fine by me. I just want to see us end on a good note and try to get Tennessee back to where we're used to being."
NOT ON THE DOCKET
Though even Lane Kiffin has freely admitted he expects junior All-American safety Eric Berry to be among the top picks in the 2010 NFL Draft, Berry is not among the 20 Vols presently scheduled to run solo through the Pride of the Southland Band's "T" Saturday prior to kickoff against Vanderbilt.
DEALING WITH DISTRACTIONS
To a man, the Tennessee football team, players and coaches say Saturday's loss at Ole Miss had nothing to do with any off the field distractions from last Thursday morning's arrest. But defensive end Chris Walker did admit after Tuesday's workout that the combination of losing the game and losing teammates this week did take it's toll on some guys over the last couple of days.
"It's been tough for us," Walker admitted. "There wasn't a distraction for us going into the game. But after the game, the way we played and all the other stuff that happened during the week compounded on us. You could tell some guys were down. But we had to come out here and have a really good practice today and I think we did."
And there is no question that the dismissal of both Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards as well as the uncertainty of Janzen Jackson's future has been an eye opener.
"I think it just sets an example," Williams said. "I think coach Kiffin made the right decision and that's an example of how he's going to run the program. He's going to run a clean program. There's not really much room for error here now. Those guys made a bad decision. This team still has goals. We want to go to a bowl game and finish on a good note. We understand the decision the coaches had to make and it's time for us to all go back to work.
"Coach Kiffin can't really fine us or suspend us, but when you see what happened with those guys it makes you more liable for your decisions. When we do good coach treats us good, but if you do bad he's going to make a decision that might affect you for the rest of your time here. He doesn't baby us, or tell us we can't do something. He makes you think on your own. I appreciate that, but guys have to make better decisions."
On Tuesday, it was reported that true freshman defensive back Nyshier Oliver had been cited for shoplifting at West Town Mall in West Knoxville. Following Tuesday's practice, Lane Kiffin declined to comment on the matter.
Defensive back Dennis Rogan was not in shoulder pads today and was limited on the practice field. Linebacker LaMarcus Thompson did not practice because of soreness in his shoulder following a stinger that sent him to the hospital. Kiffin said it remains to be seen if Thompson can play Saturday. If Thompson can't go, then true freshman Greg King would get the start. King, who is playing with torn meniscus in his left knee said he is moving much better these days and is hoping to get the field and improve from a week ago.
"It's a lesson learned," King offered of last week's performance. "We went over some things and saw what we did wrong and we are just learning from it."
Safety Prentiss Waggner, who continues to work as the starting free safety, feels that he is getting better each week.
"I would say I am seeing things better," Waggner said. "Coming into the Memphis game, I pretty much knew the defense. I just needed to get my feet wet. I always tried to prepare myself as a starter. It's coming along pretty well."
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