CHARLESTON — Redshirt freshman Mark Williams made an impact right away in his first career start, which came in at the season-opener against Indiana State. Williams intercepted a pass and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown to give EIU a 13-7 lead.
While there's been a hiccup here or there, Williams' steady play has continued throughout the season. He has three interceptions on the season and might have had the biggest game of his early career against Tennessee Tech on Saturday.
Williams broke up three passes, one of which he almost intercepted and he potentially would've returned it for a touchdown, and had an interception. The pick was key because Tech was trying to drive down for a potential game-winning score and Williams intercepted the pass to end the drive.
On the season, Williams is fifth on the team with 29 tackles and has five pass breakups to go with three interceptions and one fumble recovery.
"It's definitely been a good year and hopefully I can keep it going," Williams said. "My team depends on me, so I just have to keep stepping up and keep making plays and we will continue to win."
It shouldn't be a surprise that Williams is having an impact so soon for EIU. He has the pedigree, since his father, Darryl Williams, is a former Pro-Bowl free safety for the Cincinnati Bengals. Plus he played for one of the best high schools in America, St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida.
But Williams doesn't feel like there's pressure to perform.
"Growing up, my dad tried not to pressure me," Williams said. "Other people put me in the shadow, but the coaches here stay on me a lot and they want to get the best out of me and know I can do better. They are never satisfied."
Because of his pedigree, EIU coach Kim Dameron said he felt Williams would be ready to compete at this level after his redshirt season.
"He has really good ball instincts," Dameron said. "I think he has done a great job the first half of the season. It's not over, but it started on the first night getting a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown. He's just continued to play at a high level. When he's in there, he's been really good."
Darryl Williams played for the Bengals from 1992 to 2001 and finished his career with 31 interceptions. He made the Pro Bowl in 1997 when he had eight interceptions and 68 tackles. He had 123 tackles in 1993. Williams said he learned a lot from his father.
"When I first started playing, I played the same position as him, safety, so he was teaching me a lot about the game," Williams said. "Then I changed to corner, but he was still in my ear, teaching and coaching me from the side. He definitely taught me a lot."
Williams was surrounded by plenty of talent on his high school team. Williams played as a junior and senior and St. Thomas Aquinas won the 7A state championship both years, going a combined 27-2. He earned honorable mention All-Broward County as a senior. Williams said about 15 players from his senior class went on to play college football.
"It was definitely fun. If I could go back and do it all over again, I definitely would," Williams said. "It was a fun experience playing around a bunch of great guys, a bunch of major players. It taught me and made me a better player. In high school, I was hoping to end up at a major school, but you end up where you are supposed to end up."
Williams was looking at Indiana, Miami (of Ohio) and Akron before choosing to play for EIU. Williams received advice from his father, who went through the same process before going to the University of Miami.
"He just told me to go with my heart and choose a place where I could stay for four years. That was his big advice. EIU got the win," Williams said. "I felt I could come here and make an impact right away. So I choose EIU. Small school, small town, not many distractions so I can get to work."
The breakout season for Williams comes after a long year of being on the sidelines. Williams was redshirted last season, and he had to learn to wait his turn. During that time, he learned from fellow defensive backs DySaun Smith and Bradley Dewberry.
"Last year it made me hungrier to play," Williams said. "I came into this past spring and let my play do the talking. It taught me patience sitting on the sideline and watching other guys play. Watching them play taught me how to improve my game."
While Williams had a memorable moment in his first career game against Indiana State with the interception return, he only wanted to get better from that point.
"I feel like I am getting better in certain areas," Williams said. "Tackling, I feel like I've improved at that a lot, especially being a small guy. Coverage I feel like I've improved a lot. We've been improving."