'It's about time you came back': Running back Antonio Williams is finally home
Junior running back Antonio Williams (24) hurdles over an opposing player during the Tar Heels' 22-19 loss against Virginia Tech on the night of Saturday, October 13, 2018 in Keenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC.
Antonio Williams recently turned 21, the age many consider the real start of adulthood.
But those who know the North Carolina running back, who is in his first season with the team after two years at Ohio State, have always seen someone mature beyond his years.
As a star at North Stanly High School in his hometown of New London, N.C., Williams won the admiration of head coach Ralph Jackson, not just because of his school record 81 rushing touchdowns, but because of the way he served as a mentor to his son, R.J.
And when Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford recruited Williams, he was intrigued not only by what he saw on film, but by what he heard discussed on the other end of phone calls that became frequent and lengthy: a desire to one day become a coach and do his parents and siblings proud as the first in his family to attend college.
Williams is now UNC’s leading rusher with 478 yards and five touchdowns. His home just under a 90-mile drive southwest of Chapel Hill, the bruising runner took the scenic route, but he’s finally arrived where he believes he belongs.
After playing eight games in Carolina Blue, Williams has already carried the ball 22 more times than he did as a Buckeye. Equally as important, he’s closer to one of his biggest motivations: his family.
“I wish I would have came here initially, but I’m glad I didn’t,” Williams said. “Because life teaches you lessons. You learn from everything.”
His journey to Chapel Hill is proof of that.
“I think a lot of guys are just caught up in the hype, man”
It was around the eighth grade when the prospect of playing college football began to transition from a dream to an achievable goal in Williams’ mind. That’s when UNC head coach Larry Fedora first noticed him, anyway.
Then came high school, when Williams started treating the sport he was good at like a job he loved.
“His dad, at 14 years old, would bring him to the weight room at 5 o'clock in the morning,” said Jackson, who described coaching Williams as “probably the easiest job I ever had to do.”
On one occasion, the former North Stanly coach found his star running back ready to work out – with the flu.
“That’s just how it was. You gotta sacrifice sometimes, man,” said Williams.
A physical runner with the valuable combination of size and shiftiness, Williams dominated the competition at the N.C. High School Athletics Association 1A level.
“High school was fun,” Williams said with a laugh.
And in having fun, he attracted the attention of the the nation’s blue bloods.
Williams initially committed to UNC as a sophomore. He enjoyed a good relationship with Fedora and the UNC coaching staff and appreciated the family atmosphere in Chapel Hill.
But the allure of leaving North Carolina and playing for a national power captivated Williams, as has been the case for many of this state’s top recruits over the years. After committing to Wisconsin, Williams changed his mind once more and offered his pledge to Ohio State, a brand name that had recently won a national championship in 2015.
“I think a lot of guys are just caught up in the hype, man,” Williams said.
Admittedly, Williams was. Having developed a great relationship with Alford, the Buckeyes’ running backs coach – one Williams maintains to this day – he committed to Ohio State without ever stepping foot on the campus.
What followed was a first season in which he carried the ball just six times. A year later, in 2017, Williams made the most of his limited opportunities, rushing for 290 yards on 57 carries and three touchdowns.
He was the leader of the Ohio State running backs room, Alford said. But that role didn’t translate into playing time.
“They kept giving him the runaround up there and all he needed was a chance,” said Keith Williams, Antonio’s father. “You see what he’s doing now. They didn’t treat him right.”
'A shining light for his family'
If it was completely about carries, perhaps Williams would be at another school – not UNC, where he shares the workload with Michael Carter and Jordon Brown, two backs who enjoyed good seasons a year ago.
Just as important in Williams’ mind was the need to get closer to home.
He comes from a tight-knit family, the third child in a family of four. Above him in age are a 28-year-old sister and a 25-year-old brother; below him, a 17-year-old sister.
Throughout his life, one of Williams’ biggest motivations has consistently been being the best son and brother possible.
When Williams signed his National Letter of Intent as a senior in high school and became a first-generation college student, Keith Williams couldn’t stop grinning.
“I think in a lot of ways he sees himself as a shining light for his family,” Alford said.
So when his parents went through what he described as “a very rough split,” Williams decided he wanted to be there for those closest to him. Around the same time, his paternal grandmother and grandfather, whom Williams said played big roles in his upbringing, began to decline in health.
“That was part of me coming back because I wanted to help ease that situation for my dad and my mom,” he said.
Keith Williams was worried that his son was placing too big of a burden on himself.
“It was kind of rough on Antonio,” he said. “Antonio, he’s the kind of person ... he holds a lot of stuff in. I told him, ‘You don’t need to be worrying about all this.’”
But Williams was determined to follow his North Star, and in April, he made it official: his next stop would be UNC, the place he and his father now believe he should have been all along.
Then in July, the NCAA granted Williams immediate eligibility, an exception to the rule of student-athletes sitting out for one season after transferring.
“He’ll definitely be a factor for our football team this year,” Fedora predicted of the player he noticed as an eighth grader and finally had as a junior in college.
He was right on that one.
'He’s got a point to prove'
In some ways, Williams is a throwback. At 5-11, 210 pounds, he brings physicality in a day and age where speed is valued more than ever. A north-south runner, he’s liable to run over you before he goes around you.
His favorite formation? The I-Formation, the antithesis of what’s become standard in the sport today.
Williams is doing just fine in Fedora’s spread, though, dispelling the notion that he isn’t versatile.
Through seven games, Williams has recorded nine runs of 14-plus yards and four runs of 30-plus yards.
In UNC’s lone win, a 38-35 triumph over Pittsburgh, Williams rushed for 114 yards. One of his two touchdowns that day came from 37 yards out and featured Williams making a safety whiff on a tackle in the open field.
UNC is letting Williams do what the Buckeyes wouldn’t, and the Tar Heels are better for it.
“He feels like he’s got a point to prove, transferring from Ohio State, where he didn’t feel like he was given a fair shot, which he wasn’t,” teammate Carter said of Williams.
Turning things around
On Oct. 22, Ohio State’s Alford sent a Happy Birthday tweet to Williams, telling his former player that he misses him and is proud of what he’s accomplished.
“We certainly didn’t want him to go,” Alford said, noting that such a sentiment is hardly universal as transfers have become more common in college sports.
In Williams, he saw a player who put others ahead of himself.
Before Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins became a freshman All-American and recorded the second-highest yards per carry average in Ohio State history (7.2 yards), Williams taught him the playbook.
“Antonio took him under his wing and helped teach him the offense,” Alford said.
At North Stanly, it didn’t take Jackson long to realize that Williams had certain intangibles that made him a great teammate: a team-oriented focus and concern for others.
When Williams was a first-year, North Stanly found itself losing badly one Friday night. Williams had tears in his eyes, and Jackson wanted to know why.
“He said, ‘Coach, they’re gonna try to fire you if we don’t start winning,’” Jackson recalled. “Wow, this kid really gets it.”
When there is an individual who can teach him something or a situation to be learned from, Williams takes note.
That’s why he doesn’t look back on his time at Ohio State with any ill will. Instead, Williams wants to use his experiences as a Buckeye – namely a trip to the College Football Playoff and the Cotton Bowl – to help the Tar Heels.
“It’s a high possibility to turn places around like here at Carolina,” Williams said. “And being in the state and staying in the state and doing that, you have so much more pride."
When Williams told Fedora he was interested in becoming a Tar Heel – again – the coach was happy and his message was brief.
“Our conversation was very simple,” Williams recalled. “He said, ‘It’s about time you came back.'”