Go ahead, fast-forward into the future — it doesn’t hurt to imagine. It is early December in New York City, and DeAngelo Williams has already been named as one of five finalists for the Heisman Trophy. The emcee is at the podium, he opens the envelope and announces, “The winner of the 71st Heisman Trophy is ...”
OK, so we won’t jinx him, but with the 2005 season upon us, Williams has already established himself as a legitimate candidate for college football’s most coveted individual award. A Tiger player as a Heisman Trophy winner? You can pinch yourself, but this is no dream — it could happen if the cards fall just right.
No question that Williams has to post similar astronomical numbers as he did last year — 1,948 yards on the ground; 22 rushing touchdowns (tops in the nation). But more importantly, the star tailback has to find a way to win over the 900 or so sports writers and former Heisman winners who vote on the award.
The U of M has already unleashed the clever Race for the Heisman campaign (www.racefortheheisman.com). But playing well on national TV and a seven- or eight-win season by the team might be the formula that kicks Williams’ bid into overdrive. And just making it to New York would be prize enough.
The charismatic Williams recently stopped by The University of Memphis Magazine’s offices to offer his perspective on the Heisman campaign and the upcoming season, which kicks off with a home game against Ole Miss Sept. 5.
Last season you were considered a long shot for the Heisman. Going into the fall, many people still feel it will be hard for you to win the trophy playing for a school without a national reputation for football. What do you think will have to happen for you to take home the Heisman?
A lot of what you have to do to win the Heisman depends on what school you go to. If I went to an SEC school and rushed for 1,500 yards, I’d be up for it automatically. But for me [playing at a school without a national football reputation], if someone from one of the big schools is a 1,200-yard rusher, it means I have to pick up 1,600 or 1,700 yards to have a chance.
Are you happy with the race car-themed campaign the U of M came up with?
When I first saw it, my jaw dropped. Jennifer [Rodrigues, U of M director of athletic media relations] did a great job coming up with the race car idea. It’s perfect. It is clever.
Are you a NASCAR fan?
I am now.
How does it feel to even be mentioned as a candidate for the Heisman?
The whole thing is amazing to me. I never imagined I’d be in this position. It still doesn’t seem real. But I can tell you it has been a pleasure being mentioned with the likes of Eddie George, Jason White, Desmond Howard. To win it would mean a lot to the University and to the city of Memphis. I want it for the fans.
Has it really hit you that you are getting so much national attention?
Coach West tells me to enjoy these things now. When you get old, he says, you know to appreciate these things, but when you’re younger you may not really appreciate it. I am trying to enjoy it, but the whole thing still hasn’t hit me just yet.
One national publication likens your abilities to former Auburn star Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (NFL first round draft pick). How do you feel about that comparison?
He was in the top five of the draft this year. I’d say I am just like Cadillac if it comes down to getting drafted so high and making his salary.
The Liberty Bowl has installed artificial turf. Does that change your game?
It [artificial turf] is a lot faster than grass and makes cuts a lot more crisp. I don’t have to worry about high grass or low grass — the surface will always be the same. I love it. I am looking forward to it.
Campaign Revs its Engines
When Jennifer Rodrigues went searching for an idea to promote DeAngelo Williams for the Heisman Trophy, she didn’t have to venture too far from home — literally.
“My husband collects the Dale Earnhardt die-cast model cars,” says the U of M director of athletic media relations. “I was walking by my entertainment center at home and besides the fact that I was thinking, ‘These cars really need to be dusted,’ that is when the idea hit.”
Rodrigues had spent several days looking for something unique, something that would separate Williams from other Heisman hopefuls, when she struck upon the idea to create a NASCAR-like model race car to be the centerpiece of the campaign. The resulting “DeAngelo car,” complete with Tiger blue and gray colors and Williams’ number 20 painted on the side, has been overwhelmingly successful.
At least 30 newspapers in major cities across the country carried some mention of the unique campaign when it was announced in early summer. ESPN.com, CBSSportsline.com and Foxsports.com were just a few of the online outlets to pick up the story.
“We wanted something that wouldn’t go straight to the trash; something that would sit on a desk, that a media member would keep and maybe even give to his kid,” Rodrigues says.
Rodrigues had 3,550 of the cars produced, with 1,100 designated for local and national media members, including members of the Football Writer’s Association. Tiger fans were given the opportunity to buy into the car, too — 2,450 were offered to the public. It took just four days for the supply to be exhausted.
Revenue generated from the sale of the cars went into the U of M’s general fund.
“We wanted something with a ‘wow’ factor and I believe we’ve accomplished that,” Rodrigues says.
Williams says the car theme “is just perfect.”
“I am the car, coach West is the driver and my offensive line is the pit crew,” quips Williams.
Williams rushed for 1,948 yards last season and led the nation with 22 rushing touchdowns. Despite projections that he could have been a late first-round pick in the NFL draft, Williams decided to return to Memphis for his senior season.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper says Williams will be “one of the top five players to be selected in the 2006 NFL Draft and the No. 1 running back to be taken.”
You’ve said before that you enjoy college life. What do you do when you’re not playing football or attending classes?
My teammates and I, we take road trips. Road trips are the best. They’re better than going to Hawaii or to the Bahamas. When you road trip with people on the team, to like Atlanta or Arkansas, the things you encounter and the things you and your teammates go through, you can’t get anywhere else — crazy things. We can turn anything into a joke. You never know where you’re gonna end up, what’s gonna happen. That’s the fun part of it. In the NFL, it’ll be a little different. Their road trips aren’t like ours. A road trip to them is like three in a limo. With us, we’re college students on a budget so everything is trimmed up drastically.
What else do you do in your spare time?
We play a lot of pickup basketball. If we’re playing against non-football players, it is more of a finesse game — we’re trying not to get hurt. But we hate to lose in any sport.
You could have taken the money and literally run with it if you’d entered the draft after last season.
Money is not the most important thing to me. When I get out of here, I want to have something with a logo on it.
So you are on course to graduate?
I’m on pace to graduate ... it will happen in December or next spring.
Are you still an accounting major?
I’ve changed to marketing.
In the preseason, you’ve already been named to some All-America lists and you’ve attended some award ceremonies. What has that been like?
I just got back from the Playboy All-America ceremony in Phoenix. I roomed with Derek Hagan, the wide receiver from Arizona State. Matt Leinhart, last year’s Heisman winner and the quarterback from USC, was next door. We grew kind of fond of each other.
I also had a chance to meet a pair of Tennessee players, Jason Allen and Jesse Mahelona. We were talking about our upcoming game against them and they said something that interested me. They said they had a harsh schedule, and they told me they consider us as one of their hardest games. I was like, “Times are changing.” That made me feel good.
What is your outlook for the upcoming season?
I feel we’ll be favored in every game we go into except against UAB, UT and Marshall. Two of those three are on the road. UAB has always been the thorn in our side.
The team lost most of the offensive line to graduation. Do you have any concerns over that?
The guys that will be in front of me are guys that I am used to playing with — I have run behind them in practice for a couple of years, and I have a lot of confidence in those guys. They will get the job done up front. We’ll be as good or better.
What will be the team’s most improved area?
At wide receiver, we’re going to be a lot bigger and a lot faster.
What about on defense? The team seemed to have some porous areas last year.
I think we’ll be a lot more mature and more aggressive on defense. With coach [Joe Lee] Dunn, you never know what we’re going to do. I put my faith in him.
Are you fully recovered from your injury?
It was a broken fibula, and it is completely healed up. After it happened, I played one more series before I came out.
Last year your mom was ill and that had to play on your thoughts. How is she doing now?
Mom is doing great. She had surgery last year right after the South Florida game — that took care of her cancer. She is fine.
Your son, Jacobi, was a toddler last summer. How is he doing?
Jacobi is 2 now, and he loves playing with his football. I’m trying to break him from that. We want to do something that doesn’t involve hitting, spitting or a ball. Something non-aggressive.
Anything you would like to tell Tiger fans?
I believe this will be our best season ever, and I want all the fans to experience it. We need everyone to be in their seats. More fans in the stands means more adrenaline pumping. It gives us that extra boost to win. We’re like race cars. The fans keep us gassed up; they keep us going.