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USF's 5-foot-7 'giant' hopes for fairy tale finish

USF running back Benjamin Williams threads through Tennessee-Martin defenders on his way to scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of the Bulls’ opener. He also scored against Syracuse.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

USF running back Benjamin Williams threads through Tennessee-Martin defenders on his way to scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of the Bulls’ opener. He also scored against Syracuse.

At 5 feet 7, he is the shortest player on USF's roster, but if you ask his teammates, Ben Williams is a giant.

An ankle injury has limited him to 25 carries and four catches this season, but you would be hard-pressed to find a player more widely respected in the Bulls' locker room.

"You would love for him to be your teammate," senior safety Carlton Williams said. "He gives his all, plays hurt, has done wonderful things for us. I don't think there's anyone on this team that could find something bad to say about him."

His story has been told before, of him making the team as a walk-on out of open tryouts in 2005, then scoring two touchdowns to become MVP of USF's first bowl win less than two years later and earning a scholarship for the past two seasons.

"This guy came from nowhere, and now he's a starting running back," guard Matt Huners said. "He keeps getting better every day, and whatever you ask him, he'll do it. You ask him to climb a tree, he'll ask 'How high?' "

Healthy again with half a season left in his Bulls career, Williams wants the final chapter of his story to have a proud finish.

"These last six games have to be the best games I've ever played," said Williams, 22, who will graduate in December with a degree in economics. "I have to keep working at it, keep grinding, second efforts, keep running everything out."

'He just knocks them out'

Williams has never played a down of defense at USF, but he's one of the team's most feared hitters. Ask Carlton Williams about Williams and he puts a hand on the center of his chest, remembering.

"Ben is the toughest person I've ever met," the safety said. "(In practice), when I get ready to blitz, I'm looking back there to see if he's back there. I'll never forget, I blitzed one time and Ben hit me right in my sternum. My sternum was hurt for about two weeks."

If there's a free minute in the video room, the highlight tape players ask for isn't big touchdowns. It's Williams destroying opposing defenders who come in for blitzes, not suspecting a big hit from the running back.

"We'll sit and watch film of his blocks sometimes, when we have a little time to ourselves," receiver Marcus Edwards said. "He blocks his (butt) off. He's an extremely good blocker."

Huners said Williams' size sets up the blocks, because it's natural to underestimate him.

"I guess people come up, see this guy who's not the biggest guy, they think 'This guy's not going to do anything,' and he just knocks them out," Huners said.

'Guys want to stop and watch'

USF strength coach Ronnie McKeefery said he rarely hears a word from Williams, and one of the few times he expects a smile from him is when he sets a personal record in the weight room.

Williams found weight­lifting almost by accident — he had missed the cut for the baseball team as a 5-5, 120-pound freshman at Lake Wales, and weightlifting was just another spring sport he could try.

Today, he's a beast. McKeefery was watching a feature on ESPN about Michigan State's Javon Ringer and his impressive numbers in the weight room, and the coach had to laugh. Every time they threw out an impressive number, Williams had it beat.

He broke a 9-year-old bench-press record for USF running backs at 430 pounds. He can squat 660 pounds, more than triple his body weight of 200.

"We're lucky if we get them to squat double their weight," said McKeefery, who believes Williams could be an Olympic weightlifter. "When he lifts, guys want to stop and watch. There's almost an audience effect."

His own inspiration

Williams said he gets his dedication and work ethic from his parents, and gets his toughness from his older sister, Tamika Davis, who is back home after serving three tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army.

"I look up to my sister because she has that drive, that push to always work hard," he said. "What I admire her about most is that she's so driven in what she's doing right now. This game is just a game. When I look at what I've been through, it's nothing compared to what she's been through."

The size issues that most would see as a weakness turn out to be what has driven him since he was a child. Tell him he's too small to play in the NFL, he reminds you he was too small to play college football and points to the model for his optimism, Jaguars back Maurice Jones-Drew, who like him is 5-7.

"They always said I was too small to play football," Williams said. "That mentality helped me become a lot more physical, a lot more determined, never wanting to give up, always trying to get better."

He has the respect of his teammates and coaches, and as USF makes a run at its first Big East championship, the Bulls expect Williams to be a big part of that pursuit.

"I look up to him," coach Jim Leavitt said. "His work ethic, focus, strength of character. He works extremely hard, and he's very strong, as strong a player as there is."

Today's state games

No. 14 USF at Louisville

3:30 p.m., Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Louisville

TV/radio: BHSN; 970-AM

Line: USF by 31/2

Weather: 57, partly cloudy

No. 5 Florida vs. Kentucky

12:30 p.m., Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville

TV/radio: Ch. 38; 620-AM

Line: Florida by 26

Weather: 76, partly cloudy

No. 24 Florida State vs. Virginia Tech

3:30 p.m., Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee

TV/radio: Ch. 28; 1040-AM

Line: Florida State by 5

Weather: 77, mostly sunny

Miami vs. Wake Forest

Noon, Dolphin Stadium, Miami

TV/radio: ESPNU; 1470-AM

Line: Miami by 21/2

Weather: 84, scattered thundershowers

USF's 5-foot-7 'giant' hopes for fairy tale finish 10/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:50pm]
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