On his first visit to the Citrus Bowl, Quentin Williams spent a good bit of time absorbing the scene around him and two teammates from Jefferson High School.
There was the stadium, filled nearly to capacity with more than 60,000 fans. There was music, the smell of smoked meats and one of college football's most celebrated halftime shows. And many of the same things — possibly with more people, he said — were going outside the stadium.
Williams resolved to return.
And he did, as a senior at Jefferson two years ago, then a promising redshirt freshman with Bethune-Cookman last year.
Saturday, Williams takes center stage as starting quarterback for the Wildcats. The record-breaking Jefferson alum will lead Bethune-Cookman into the annual Florida Classic against Florida A&M after the best game of his fledgling college career.
After being a spectator for three years, Williams is the main event.
"It was a great atmosphere and the fans put so much pride into the game," Williams said. "But it's different being a part of the team, with all eyes on you."
Williams has earned that attention, guiding the Wildcats to six wins in seven starts and helping them clinch their first outright MEAC championship in 10 years following Saturday's 49-7 win at Savannah State.
In that victory, Williams completed 9 of 12 passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 113 yards on 11 carries. He showcased his multitude of gifts: accuracy, arm strength and preternatural shiftiness for someone who is not exactly swift.
Williams took the starting job midway through the Wildcats' 38-10 loss at Miami in the third game of the season and has strengthened his hold since.
He has completed 61 percent of his passes for 838 yards and nine touchdowns, with two interceptions, and has rushed for 363 yards and three touchdowns. If Williams had more passes, his efficiency rating of 152 would rank 10th in Division I-AA.
"He can operate our offense at a high level," B-CU coach Brian Jenkins told the Daytona Beach News-Journal this year. "I just see this young man getting better and better."
Back home, it all sounds familiar to the coach who placed the ball and an uncommon amount of trust in Williams for three years in high school.
"I think they're finding out how good he is," said Mike Fenton, former head coach at Jefferson and now offensive coordinator at Tampa Catholic. "I actually thought he would step right in and start. But what he's doing now reminds me a lot of what he did with us his sophomore year."
Coming off a solid but unspectacular year as the freshman starter on junior varsity, Williams won the starting job over former Bucs quarterback Doug Williams' son. Fenton was then in his second year as Jefferson coach, inheriting a program that had lost record-setting quarterback Stephen Garcia. He was looking for someone to run his zone-read offense.
Fenton quickly realized Williams could be the one, recalling a practice the previous year when the freshman came up to the varsity at the end of the season.
"He threw the ball and fit it into such a tight little area with such velocity," Fenton said. "It was the sweetest thing you'd ever seen in your life."
Fenton looked at offensive coordinator Jeremy Earle. They said nothing and broke into grins.
"That's when it started," Fenton said.
Three years later, Williams had broken state records for career passing yards and passing touchdowns set by Tim Tebow. His career culminated with a senior year that included 4,300 yards passing yards, 840 rushing, 61 touchdowns and the school's first state championship.
Williams, of course, remembers those days fondly. He was at the center of a virtually unstoppable offense that included three receivers who went to major colleges.
"We had some really good times," he said.
For most recruits with that kind of resume, offers to bigger schools are inevitable. Not for Williams.
Concerns about his height — at 6 feet and 190 pounds, he's not the typical 6-3, pro-style gunslinger — scared off a number of D-I colleges. Fenton remembered the time a coach from Purdue came to campus and expressed reservations about offering a scholarship to Williams.
Fenton had Williams meet with the coach after class.
"The coach looked at him, shook his hand and offered him on the spot," Fenton said. "He said, 'He's bigger than (former Purdue star) Drew Brees right now.' "
But Williams remained committed to Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach that was the first to offer him a scholarship. Williams was loyal to a school that had educated a number of family members, was only 150 miles away and had an improving program and wide-open offense under Jenkins.
Those memories from his time at the Florida Classic didn't hurt either.
"It's been a good experience," Williams said.
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected]