Recruiting Rewind: Derrick Williams

For those of you who have been around long enough to remember the Ron Zook era, the recruiting landscape for Florida isn’t entirely different now than it was then. Back then, the Gators made waves nationally on the trail (although they were never able to dip into California and land a big-time target of the USC Trojans) and were in on just as many highly regarded blue-chippers at that point as they are today.

The only difference now, of course, is that the Gators’ batting average has gone up considerably ever since Urban Meyer stepped foot on campus.

I came across a piece on Pro Football Talk this morning that harkened back to that era during which Florida seemingly always got in the mix for a big-time prospect but never could seem to close the deal.

The Lions drafted Derrick Williams in the third round last year, and he looks like a mistake by G.M. Martin Mayhew in an otherwise excellent draft. MLive’s Tom Kowalski writes that Williams needs a strong training camp or he probably won’t even make the roster in his second season. Williams’ receiving skills aren’t special enough to keep him employed, so he’ll need to show major progress in the return game.

If you need a refresher, Derrick Williams was the five-star “can’t-miss” dynamic playmaker of the 2005 recruiting class. Ranked as a consensus five-star prospect (and the No. 1 overall player in the country, according to Rivals), Williams accounted for over 2,000 yards of total offense and 24 touchdowns his senior year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md. He beat teams in a number of ways – through the air (both on the passing and receiving end of the football), on the ground and in the return game. He ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds.

In essence, he was Percy Harvin before Percy Harvin had hit the scene.

The big kicker for Florida? He attended the same high school as Gators defensive end Derrick Harvey, and former UF assistant coach Mike Locksley (now the head coach at New Mexico) was known for his ability to recruit both Maryland and the metro area of Washington D.C.

So, what happened? Zook was fired, of course. Following a 2004 mid-season meltdown (this time in Starkville, against Mississippi State), Zook was relieved of his duties and a vast majority of the top prospects on the board for Florida scattered and headed elsewhere. Williams would end up signing with Penn State.

Although he would have his moments in Happy Valley (he was an instrumental part in leading the Nittany Lions to the 2009 Rose Bowl), Williams never quite lived up to the hype as the supposed No. 1 prospect in the country. He would finish his college career with 161 receptions for 1,743 yards. He also contributed 594 rushing yards (5.1 avg.) and finished with a total of 20 touchdowns. Of course all those numbers are solid, but in reality, he probably left a sour taste in the mouth of fans who were expecting a little more of a player who was expected to “electrify” over 100,000 fans in Beaver Stadium each fall.

Why does all of this matter? Because the miss of Williams allowed Florida to sign a similar (but better) prospect who did many of the same things: Percy Harvin, who might be the greatest player to ever take the field at the Swamp. His exploits need no mention here, but let’s throw them out for the heck of it: 133 receptions for 1,929 yards; 194 carries for 1,852 yards on the ground (an amazing 9.5 yards per carry) and 32 total touchdowns. Also remember, Harvin’s statistics came in just three seasons, while Williams played a full four. While Williams was a good football player, Harvin proved to be the truly elite talent that doesn’t come around every day.

It might be argued that perhaps Williams played in a more conservative offense at Penn State, while Harvin was in a more wide-open system that catered to his talents. However, it’s very clear that with Harvin winning Rookie of the Year honors in Minnesota, and Williams struggling to remain on the team in Detroit, that the two simply aren’t on the same level. The recruiting “experts” got it right with Harvin and missed the boat on Williams. Pure and simple.

And that’s why, it should be remembered that not every recruiting “miss” is really a miss. The loss of Derrick Williams was converted into the gain of Percy Harvin, and Florida’s future changed dramatically as a result of those two college decisions by a pair of high school prospects considered the “best in the country.”