If all had worked out as planned, Deonte Williams would have been wearing scarlet and black last year when the San Diego State football team made its long-awaited return to national relevancy.
Before finishing 9-4 in 2010, the Aztecs hadn’t been in a bowl game since 1998 and hadn’t won one since 1967. Prior to the season, Williams, a standout transfer from Sierra College, was being brought in to compete for the starting running back spot.
He never made it on the field, falling one class short of the credits he needed to become eligible and ended up watching from afar as freshman Ronnie Hillaman set a San Diego State and Mountain West Conference freshman record with 1,532 rushing yards and the Aztecs rolled to a 35-14 victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
After grayshirting, Williams is now at Cal Poly, adding even more intrigue to the Mustangs’ season-opening road trip to San Diego on Sept. 3, when Cal Poly will try to stretch its winning streak over the Aztecs to three.
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“I was there,” Williams said. “I was in school. I was actually in school practicing every day, training with the teammates. I really built relationships with the coaches, the strength coach and the teammates.”
An Oakland native who grew up in Roseville and finished his high school career at Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove, Williams originally began his college career at Northern Arizona, where he was named Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year after rushing for 950 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games in 2008.
Together with Cal Poly senior running back Mark Rodgers, who had 882 yards and eight touchdowns after transferring from West Virginia last year, Williams could give the Mustangs’ triple-option offense its best 1-2 punch at slotback since the last former Big Sky Newcomer of the Year to come to San Luis Obispo.
Ryan Mole, a former Righetti High standout, shared the honor at Sacramento State in 2004, when he rushed for 858 yards and five touchdowns. Mole then teamed with running back James Noble the first two seasons the Mustangs ran the triple option, helping make it arguably the most potent offense in the Football Championship Subdivision over that span.
Cal Poly receiver Brandon Michalkiewicz played alongside Williams at Sierra in 2009 and credited Williams’ 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns for helping him get open to catch 70 passes for 1,208 yards and 13 scores.
They only played together for one year, but “one year was enough,” said Michalkiewicz, who transferred to Cal Poly in 2010 and helped recruit Williams to the school.
“Just give him the ball. Give him the ball and give him one hole, and he’s gone. It’s like a highlight reel. He’s a great player. I was not going to let anyone else get him but us.”
After his lone season at Northern Arizona, Williams yearned for a bigger challenge. He was recruited by Western Athletic Conference schools Nevada, Idaho and Utah State while rushing for 2,448 yards and 30 touchdowns as the Sacramento Bee’s Offensive Player of the Year at Pleasant Grove.
But he initially chose to go to the lower level where he could play immediately.
“I loved what Northern Arizona allowed me to do,” Williams said. “They gave me the chance to come in there and play right away, which I did. I just made a man’s decision at that young age that I just wanted to move on.”
Williams thought he was getting his chance to play in the Football Bowl Subdivision when he signed a scholarship agreement with San Diego State, enrolled in summer school and began practicing with the Aztecs prior to the 2010 season.
But days before training camp, Williams said, the athletic department determined he still needed one class to become eligible, and it was too late to complete it before the start of the season.
After entertaining the idea of finishing up the course in San Diego while sitting out the season, Williams said he and then-coach Brady Hoke, who’s since gone to Michigan, decided it was best for him to return home to Sacramento.
When Hillman emerged as a breakout star, Williams felt as if he no longer fit into the Aztecs’ plans and re-opened his recruiting.
“I was going to come back, but Ronnie had a big year,” Williams said. “He had a great year. He’s young, and I was the older guy. They were counting on me to come in for that season, but he filled in and did his job, so plans kind of changed, which I understand. I just chose to take a different route and go somewhere else.”
It could have been a costly move. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said the school had to petition the NCAA to ensure that Williams would be eligible to play this season and would have two years with the Mustangs.
He easily could have been going into his senior season on the opposite sideline when Cal Poly meets San Diego State next week.
Instead he’ll be with Michalkiewicz and former Northern Arizona teammate and current Mustangs cornerback Nico Molino. Though that wasn’t the original plan, that’s fine with Williams, too.
“I’m not going to lie to you, sitting out last season was the worst feeling I ever had in my life,” Williams said. “Just knowing that we’re playing against San Diego State, that just put the icing on the cake. So, I’m ready to roll.”