The biggest play of Mark Williams’ young college career didn’t have a promising start.
When Williams, a redshirt freshman cornerback at Eastern Illinois, intercepted a first-quarter pass last weekend at Indiana State, his first move was a misstep.
“After I caught it, I ran into one of my own players,” he said with a laugh.
Bumping into senior safety Bradley Dewberry, however, was the only contact Williams had to endure while returning the interception 73 yards for a touchdown in his first college start, a 22-20 EIU victory.
“I was just running with my man and I peeled off because I saw the quarterback looking somewhere else,” Williams said. “He threw the ball and it was an overthrow. After I caught it, I was just looking and trying to find a gap (for a return). I hit a gap and the next thing I know, an offensive lineman stepped in front of me. So I changed course, hit another gap and just turned on the speed.
“It was a great way to start my college career, but there’s always room for improvement,” Williams said.
Earning his spot
The young cornerback earned a starting spot in a veteran secondary for EIU, impressing the coaching staff along the way.
“We’re so happy he’s here,” Eastern head coach Kim Dameron said. “He’s a confident kid. He played at a really high level in high school (at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). He played against some great competition.
“We knew Mark was going to be a good player,” Dameron said. “I see him holding down a spot for us for the next four years.”
Williams grew up in Ohio and Florida as the son of 10-year NFL veteran Darryl Williams, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks. The elder Williams won two national championships while starring at the University of Miami under head coach Jimmy Johnson and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 1992 by the Bengals.
“I get a lot of, ‘I remember watching your dad on TV,’” Mark Williams said. “They’re big shoes to fill, but it was a great way to grow up. He can mentor me and tell me different things that other people wouldn’t know. It helps my game out.”
Part of growing up as the son of former Miami Hurricanes star was having access to the university’s campus and its famous former players.
“We would go to Miami’s camps and walk around,” Mark Williams said. “My dad’s name is still up on the wall for making it to the NFL, and he still holds a 40 (yard dash) time record there.”
Frequent visitors to the Williams house were former Miami safeties and NFL players Hurlie Brown and Darrell Fullington, along with Hurricanes legend and eight-time NFL Pro Bowl player Cortez Kennedy, who died in May at age 48.
“He was a close family friend,” Mark Williams said. “I was around him a lot growing up.”
For the younger Williams, breaking into the Eastern lineup required adding strength as a redshirt last season and sharpening his coverage skills.
The 6-foot Williams arrived in Charleston at 158 pounds and now weighs 170.
“That was strictly just weight room and protein,” said Williams, who mentioned his coverage skills and athleticism as his strengths. “I know I can cover. I need to be more physical against the run, and that’s something I’ve been working on.”