ZEPHYRHILLS — Soon after Willie Williams enrolled at Zephyrhills, Bulldogs coach Reggie Roberts heard his school had gained a lightning-fast transfer from Palm Bay Heritage.
So Roberts went to his computer and Googled the boy’s name to pull up highlights from the running back’s junior season across the state.
“By golly,” Roberts said, “he can run.”
And since joining the Bulldogs in the offseason, Williams hasn’t stopped.
The 5-foot-7, 170-pound speedster is one of the North Suncoast’s hottest players. He’s rushed for 500 yards over the last three contests — including a rain-shortened contest against Gulf — while scoring eight touchdowns.
Williams will be a focal point Friday when Zephyrhills (3-2, 3-0) hosts athletic Anclote (1-4, 1-2) in the Bulldogs’ toughest district test so far.
“He’s just amazing,” Zephyrhills receiver Jordan Roberts said.
Williams grew up in east Pasco County, moving around from Zephyrhills to Dade City with his aunt.
Football was always a family pursuit. His older cousins played the game, so Williams started as soon as he was old enough. Once he strapped on a helmet, he never wanted to take it off.
“I just fell into it after that,” Williams said. “I fell in love with it.”
By seventh grade, Williams assumed he would play at Zephyrhills, but his family moved to Palm Bay the next year. He always had speed — he ran the 100 meters in 11.51 seconds at the Cape Coast Conference Championships last spring — but never became a star at Heritage. He said he played little as a third-string back.
So heading into his final year of high school, Williams wanted to come back to Zephyrhills, where he grew up.
“I just wanted to come play for my hometown,” Williams said.
His aunt moved the two and a half hours back to Zephyrhills, and Williams quickly joined the football team — much to his coach’s joy.
“I’d never met Willie until he came here,” Roberts said. “I was glad to see him, though.”
That’s because Roberts’ team had a need for a speedy rusher after last year’s star, Jamal Roberts, signed with Kent State.
The Bulldogs returned a veteran offensive line — seniors Josh Shaffer and Joel Morrison and juniors Justin Shaffer, Drew Allen and Devon Long — and had gained an explosive running back to dart through the holes it created. Roberts designed the offense accordingly.
“We thought the combination of Willie and those guys coming back playing together …we knew we had something special,” Roberts said. “It was great.”
The combination started slowly. Williams rushed for only 27 yards in the opener against Land O’Lakes before stretching an ankle ligament and sustaining a high-ankle sprain.
But he’s been one of the North Suncoast’s breakout players since returning for the district opener against Wesley Chapel. He’s averaging 12 yards per carry and has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the Bulldogs’ three consecutive wins. He exploded for 211 yards and three scores against Wesley Chapel and returned a kickoff 70 yards for a score against Gulf.
Despite missing one full game and parts of two others, Williams ranks fifth in the county with 527 yards. Six of his seven rushing touchdowns covered at least 25 yards.
“He’s just doing Willie,” Roberts said. “He’s been playing football a long time. I can’t take credit for that. He just comes out and works hard, and he’s doing his thing.”
Even if his thing can be unconventional at times.
Against Gulf last week, a pitch to the left hit his arm and fell to the ground. Williams scooped the ball up, darted right and saw a wave of tacklers. He ran back 9 yards, headed left again, hit the corner and sprinted 33 yards into the end zone.
“That’s a true athlete right there…” Jordan Roberts said. “Every time he touches the ball, he does some amazing things.”
Williams said he’s enjoyed playing for his hometown team, just as he thought he would years ago, before two moves across the state. And halfway through his only season for the Bulldogs, Williams is living up to the lofty expectations his coach set the first time Roberts typed his name into Google.
“I guess,” Williams said, “he was right.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.