The Renaissance Heisman candidate: Boston College's Andre Williams
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Boston College tailback Andre Williams excels at the second level.
In the Eagles' power-run game, Williams follows a pulling guard, crashes his 6-foot, 230-pound frame into the hole and plows through opposing defensive linemen. The second level is where Williams can square his pads, unleash his speed (he's been clocked at 4.39 in the 40) and burst into the open field. He leads the nation with 188.5 rushing yards per game, accounts for 51 percent of his team's total offense and could become Boston College's first Heisman Trophy finalist since Doug Flutie in 1984.
However, to truly understand Williams' place on campus amid this star-kissed season, it's important to explore the second level of Williams' off-field life. The senior toiled anonymously for three years, earning a reputation as a thinker and philosopher as much as a football player. He reads poetry before running backs meetings, serves as a teaching assistant and has already written 80 pages of a book titled "A King, a Queen and a Conscience."
"If I had to put it in a genre," Williams said in a long interview on Sunday night, "it's a philosophical memoir."
There's a striking paradox to Williams, who is as soft-spoken off the field as he is punishing on it. He carries a 3.0 GPA, will graduate in three and a half years with a degree in applied psychology and human development and hopes to one day open a foundation using sports to better kids' lives. Boston College's offensive linemen nicknamed him "Edgar," as in Edgar Allan Poe, because of his writing proclivity. Williams admits that if he wasn't set to pursue a career in the NFL, he'd consider moving to Madagascar.
"If it wasn't for football, I would probably invest in a couple cows and chickens," he said, "and go live in the bush and make my own cheese and live a simple life."
Williams acknowledges that path is no longer an option, and first-year Eagles coach Steve Addazio is happy the back stuck around. Addazio has crafted one of the country's most impressive turnarounds by forging Boston College's identity as a power-run team. The Eagles (7-4) won two games under Frank Spaziani in 2012, a total that could quadruple if they beat Syracuse on Saturday.
Behind a physical offensive line that Williams endearingly calls "nasty b-------" and jumbo run packages swiped from Stanford's playbook, Williams has lowered his shoulder and bulled his way into the Heisman conversation. Along the way, he's left a trail of steamrolled safeties and rag-dolled defensive backs.
"He's one of the main guys responsible when you think back to the change in BC football," said running backs coach Al Washington. "That'll be his legacy, the rebirth of old school."
On campus, however, his legacy will resonate deeper.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m., Williams enters Stokes Hall and settles in for the most fascinating part of his non-football life at Boston College. He serves as a teaching assistant for campus minister Dan Leahy's "The Courage To Know" class, a freshman seminar that facilitates discussions based around broad themes like diversity, justice and faith. Topics can range from Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail to the school's social scene.
Some days, Leahy has Williams lead the lectures. Others, Williams reads students' papers and provides feedback. Mostly, he challenges freshmen to think at an advanced level.
"I don't think we think enough in school," Williams said. "We try to digest books and swallow this and regurgitate it when test time comes. When Dan asked me to be a TA, I thought it would be an awesome experience to come back and meet a group of freshmen and try and have an influence on them if that's possible."
Leahy jokes that he asked Williams to be his TA "before he was famous," as Williams took the class as a freshman. Even then, Leahy was struck by the depth of Williams' mind. He recalled Williams speaking about a relationship with an ex-girlfriend: "You know it's a special relationship when the person helps me to be more."
He added: "You don't hear that from a lot of freshman students."
Leahy felt so strongly about Williams working with his class that he actually moved it to 2 p.m. this semester to work around the football team's morning practice schedule. Leahy said Williams' ability to connect with students has been impressive; when Williams speaks, they "lean in and listen."
"An education at BC is supposed to be about educating the whole person," Leahy said. "He's as interested in being a good person as he is a good football player."
Williams said his introspective side comes from moving around so much as a child. He is the third of four kids, born to Jamaican immigrants in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He moved to Jamaica for a year soon after birth, as he said his father got deported. Then he moved to New Jersey, where he lived until eighth grade. For two years Williams attended Harrison High in Kennesaw, Ga., where he backed up current Georgia Tech star Robert Godhigh. He finished his prep career at Parkland High in Schnecksville, Pa.
His father, Ervin Williams Sr., runs a small heating and cooling business. His mother, Lancelene, trains nursing aids. Neither went to college. However, Lancelene said she stressed reading and spirituality with her kids; three have gone to college and the fourth is a senior in high school. Andre begins many mornings by spending quiet time reading the bible.
While Andre initially bristled at each move, he took parts of every place with him: the East Coast edge from Jersey, the southern gentlemen mentality from Georgia and the appreciation for country living from Pennsylvania. His varying perspectives from different parts of the country became the basis for his book.
"It's just using autobiographical information in my life to point out the important parts in my life that shape the way that I think about the world," he said. "There's a way of thinking about yourself and interacting with the people around you that can really shape the way that your world works out."
Williams is disappointed that he hasn't finished writing. Understandably, his semester has gotten a little hectic. But he has delved into poetry through a creative writing class, penning a dozen poems this semester. Before a position meeting earlier this year, Washington asked Williams to read one.
"It was like a love poem," Williams said. "It was metaphorical. It was talking about the love I was experiencing in a relationship being like a warm bubble bath. It was like a longstanding metaphor type of poem."
His teammates didn't clap. Instead, they snapped their fingers in approval, as tradition dictates at poetry readings.
When Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster began watching film on Boston College in preparation for a Nov. 2 meeting, he saw Williams barrel his way through defenses and asked: "Where was he the last couple years?" Of all the Heisman candidates in this year's race, none had less hype than Williams. (Even Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who at that time had yet to play a collegiate snap, was billed as a dark-horse contender during the preseason.)
Through his first three years with the Eagles, Williams established himself as a solid but unspectacular back. He never ran for more than 584 yards or scored more than four touchdowns in a season. His totals so far this fall -- 2,073 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns -- have well surpassed his combined numbers from 2010 to '12.
Williams had fumbling issues early in his career, and he suffered nagging injuries to his shoulder, abdominal muscle and hamstring. Still, his role as the team's leading back became clear to Addazio immediately. "In the first spring practice," Addazio said, "he was running guys over and nobody could tackle him."
When strength and conditioning coach Frank Piraino first saw Williams walk into the weight room, he assumed the player was a middle linebacker or a fullback. Then Piraino saw Williams run for the first time. He asked the coach nearest him, "If he's the running back, why is he still playing college football? That guy should be long gone if he's that big and can run like that."
Piraino coached at Florida from 2005-10, during Urban Meyer's heyday. He has seen plenty of weight room freaks. What impressed him most about Williams were his legs, which are so massive that he has to buy pants with a size 38 waist -- instead of size 36 -- so he can pull them up over his massive thighs.
"Look at the kid, he's a 230-pound dude and he's all lower body," Piraino said before borrowing a line from junior defensive back Sean Sylvia: "The kid looks like he has four hamstrings."
Prior to the season, Williams registered a broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches, which would have ranked first among tailbacks at the 2013 NFL combine. His 4.39 40 -- the average of three handheld times -- would have ranked third.
Ervin Sr. was a track star in high school in Jamaica. Andre's oldest brother, Ervin Jr. (29), played a year of football at New Hampshire. (He was nicknamed "Erv The Swerve.") His older sister, Krystal (25), ran sprints for the track team at Cornell, and his younger brother, Kareem, rushed for 309 yards and four touchdowns to lead Parkland to a district championship last weekend. (Kareem is still awaiting his first Division I offer.)
"Andre is a runner from birth," said Lancelene. "He just loves to run. Our whole family are runners."
Part of what slowed Williams early in his career was shuffling through four offensive coordinators in three seasons. So when Ryan Day arrived this winter, he met with Williams in his office. "You don't know how lucky you are," Day told him. "Trust me on this."
Boston College ran mostly zone-blocking schemes last year, which requires more patience as the offensive line moves from east to west. The Eagles' new power approach with gap-blocking schemes allows him to hit holes going downhill, perfect for his bruising north-south style.
Day recalled some skepticism, sensing Williams saw him as another coordinator telling him the things he'd want to hear. But Day's message at that meeting proved prophetic: "The perfect running back has met the perfect offense."
To start a revolution, as Addazio likes to say, the government has to be overthrown. When Addazio arrived at his first offseason winter workout at Boston College, he didn't like the look of his troops.
"He came out and looked at us and had a face of disgust," Williams recalled with a chuckle. "I was like, 'We haven't started yet. What did we even do?'"
Addazio lit into his new players for their ragged appearance. They wore cutoffs and different colored gear. Williams even admits to leaving his earrings in. "[Addazio] was just like, 'Wow, you look rag tag,'" said Williams. "'You don't look like a team.'"
Soon enough, the Eagles matched. Shirts tucked in. Sneakers tied. There was no yawning during morning workouts, and players were forbidden from leaning on equipment, as signs of weakness weren't tolerated. Sixty-foot reams of carpet were rolled out in the weight room so players could bear crawl pushing 45-pound plates.
"It's really been shaping our minds," Williams said, "and molding our minds to something tougher than it was."
Similarly, the offense embraced toughness. The program's carousel of coordinators had led the Eagles away from their roots, which included an identity as one of the country's top offensive linemen-producing schools. (Former standouts include Chris Snee, Gosder Cherilus, Dan Koppen, Anthony Castonzo and Jeremy Trueblood.) Addazio is a former offensive line coach and considered that position a strength coming out of the spring, especially with the addition of Florida fifth-year transfer Matt Patchan. Both Patchan and right tackle Ian White will likely be drafted in 2014, while junior guards Harris Williams and Bobby Vardaro and center Andy Gallick have the requisite power and athleticism to pull and clear space for Williams.
"Our offensive line is just dominant," Williams said. "They have mean streaks, each one of them."
Addazio, Day and line coach Justin Frye studied Stanford's power schemes, which use six and seven linemen, to become a cutting-edge offense through old-school smashmouth football. "You know what part of the problem is?" Addazio said. "Teams don't know how to defend it anymore. What they practice against all day long is spread teams and zone teams. Their players have a hard time on knock-you-back gap schemes. Teams aren't ready for it."
The Eagles are on a four-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 72-43 in the fourth quarter. In the last three games, Day calculated that Boston College has averaged 14 yards a play in the fourth (not including victory formation); nine of its 47 plays have been explosive plays. The joke among the offensive staff is that the Eagles are the only team in the country that sends in extra offensive linemen to run a two-minute drill.
Williams ran for a 62-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech, broke free for 80- and 47-yard scores in the final five minutes against New Mexico State on Nov. 9 and a rushed for a 34-yard touchdown in the final minute against NC State two weeks ago. "I don't know another word," said Aggies defensive coordinator David Elson, "other than demoralizing."
Added Foster: "When it's all said and done, [Williams] is their offense."
Williams has carried the ball more than 30 times in six games this season. Instead of wearing down, he compliments the staff for keeping him fresh. Williams doesn't take live contact reps during the week, a move he says has allowed him to stay healthier despite the in-game pounding.
"Last year we were getting grinded in practice," Williams said. "The staff wasn't taking care of us. I think that was a big part of me getting injured a lot."
Williams credits Addazio for resuscitating the program through hard work while taking care of his players at the same time. As Boston College sputtered to a 2-10 (1-7 ACC) record last year, Williams said the program was in need of a change. It's often the little things that motivate college football players, and Addazio has brought in better food -- "we can eat steak every night," Williams said -- and made protein and fruit shakes available after practice. Players can now get massages to take better care of their body, and the Eagles finally have the Hudl video system to study film, which Williams said his brother uses in high school.
"We were just behind," Williams said. "It's been just a whole structural change and infrastructure from ground up has changed for this team."
Williams' statistics make him a compelling Heisman candidate. If he hits his 188.5-yard rushing average at Syracuse, he'll climb to fourth on the Division I single-season rushing list, trailing only Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders (2,628), UCF's Kevin Smith (2,567) and USC's Marcus Allen (2,342). Sanders and Allen, of course, went on to win the Heisman.
But perhaps more remarkable than Williams' numbers is the manner in which he's run the ball. "Defensive backs cringe," said Foster, "when he comes through at full speed."
No game better epitomizes Williams' season than his performance against NC State. He eyeballed Wolfpack backup safety Josh Stanley early, as he sensed an overmatched opponent. "I was like, 'Ah, man, this guy is not ready,' Williams said. "I came around the left side and just tested him. He just crumbled. From then on, I was just tormenting him the whole day."
Highlights from the Eagles' 38-21 victory back up that claim, as Williams leveled such a vicious shoulder on Stanley in the second quarter that Stanley went somersaulting backwards, tail over teakettle (48-second mark of that clip). By the fourth, Stanley's will appeared so broken that he feebly flailed while attempting to tackle Williams -- who finished with 339 yards on 42 carries -- on his game-sealing 34-yard touchdown.
"That guy had a long day," said Frye, who considers Williams an "adjunct child" of his offensive line group.
As games wear on, Day can see the holes get bigger from up in the booth, a byproduct of the offensive line and tight ends wearing down the opponent. Senior wide receiver Alex Amidon notices Williams becoming more powerful, as defensive backs stop running downhill toward Williams and shy away from contact.
"The cornerbacks stop talking, stop playing and wear out throughout the game," Amidon said. "They don't want to be part of him after halftime, after the third quarter."
Defenses know exactly what's coming, and so far they've been unable to stop it. Williams has averaged 265.7 yards and 7.7 yards per carry over the past four games, plowing through stacked boxes as he racks up monster numbers.
"It's a credit to his durability and toughness that he keeps doing it, and doing it and doing it," Foster says.
Addazio hopes Williams can stiff-arm his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony in December. While Williams has put forth the country's most impressive statistical season, Addazio hopes voters will consider the second level. On Sunday, he called up the Heisman Trophy's mission statement on his iPhone, noting that its goal is to recognize "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity."
"That really fits Andre," Addazio said. "If that mission statement is real to them, it fits him to a T."
The same way that Williams fits in at Boston College.